SERMON FOR MARCH 8, 1998 FROM ROMANS 1:18ff.
As we move to chapter one, verse 18 in the book of Romans, we begin a new section of the letter. This section of the letter--verses 18-32 have become very important to the church today. There are several theological truths in this text, but there are two major truths which are probably most often cited today. First, these verses clearly teach that God has unmistakably revealed Himself to all people through his creation. Thatís important for a number of reasons in the fields of apologetics and missiology. Second, this text addresses the issue of Godís view of homosexual behavior. Those are very important issues and every Christian should know what this text says about those things and we will address those issues. But as important as those issues are, they are not Paulís main emphasis here. Frankly, given the emotional power those two issues elicit from this text, it is easy to miss what Paul says is the main issue here. The main theme of this text found in verse 18 can be easily missed unless we read it in context with the text we studied last week.
Read along with me as I read these verses. To help us see the connection between these verses in Paulís thinking, I am going to include a connective word between verses 17 and 18 that is in the Greek but the NIV leaves out. Beginning in verse 16 Paul writes, I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile. For in the gospel a righteousness of God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: The righteous will live by faith. For the wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness.Ē When you hear verse 18 in its context, it is clear the one idea Paul is stressing in this next section is the wrath of God. This morning I will make three points about the wrath of God. First, the doctrine of the wrath of God is central to Paulís understanding of the Gospel. Second, the doctrine of the wrath of God as it is commonly presented today is biblically imbalanced. Third, the abuse of the doctrine of the wrath of God has had a strongly negative effect on the church. First, lets see the centrality of this doctrine as it plays into Paulís understanding of the gospel.
Paul says in verse 17 that the gospel reveals a righteousness from God that is by faith. The gospel, when supernaturally applied to a personís life brings to that person a righteousness that is from God by faith. A legitimate question is, ďWhy is it necessary for a person to have this righteousness of God?Ē In verse 18 Paul gives the answer. The reason people need the righteousness of God is because without it, they are under the wrath of God. The stark and sobering truth of Scripture is, apart from the mercy of God given through the gospel, humanity is continually subject to the holy anger of God--his wrath. As Paul writes Romans, he is laying out the manifold glory and wonder of the gospel. But before he can detail the wonders of justification by faith given by a merciful and compassionate God, he must first by logical necessity detail our need for justification which is the horrific consequences of sin before a holy and angry God.
All of chapter 1:18-32 (in some ways it could be said the first three chapters of Romans) is about the wrath of God. This entire text answers two broad questions and both are related to the wrath of God. The first question is: what prompts His wrath--what evokes it? The second question is: how does God reveal his wrath toward a sinner in this life? We will look at those questions in the weeks to come. This morning I want to speak on this issue of the wrath of God in general. The reason for this is simple. One assumption upon which the gospel rests is, those without the gospel will taste the fierce anger of a holy God. We will never appreciate the mercy of God in the gospel which is laid out in Romans unless we first come to terms with the anger of God in His wrath.
The problem in discussing this issue is, the subject of the wrath of God has fallen on hard times in the church. The topic is not one many people spend much time studying. We have in many ways ďoutgrownĒ it, I suppose. It is passé, arcane, irrelevant. There are reams of books written each year devoted to the mercy and grace and loving kindness of God-his forgiveness, his patience, his healing. Yet, very few books are written on Godís wrath and none make it to the best seller list. Another indicator that the climate is hostile to this topic is seen in the fact that the doctrine which contains the ultimate expression of Godís wrath, the doctrine of hell is today under attack from people who call themselves conservative evangelicals. More and more so called evangelicals are rejecting the idea of the eternal, endless torment of the wicked in favor of a more ďenlightenedĒ position which holds that the torment isnít forever, it ends with the destruction of the person. This trend unbiblical!
Our second point is: the doctrine of the wrath of God as it is commonly presented today is biblically unbalanced. The unfavorable atmosphere to the doctrine of the wrath of God is utterly impossible to support biblically. It is thoroughly inconsistent with Scripture. Case in point: the most prevalent theme of Jesusí teaching ministry is judgment and hell. Thirteen percent of all his teaching is on those two subjects. Those subjects are EXCLUSIVELY concerned with the wrath of God. Over half of Jesusí 40 parables relate to Godís eternal judgment of sinners and in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus mentions hell three times. If a preacher in virtually any church today were to spend 13% of his sermons and devote half of his stories to the theme of Godís wrath, he would be dismissed as theologically imbalanced and a theatrical ďhell fire and brimstoneĒ preacher. The wrath of God may be passé to the church, but it isnít passé to Jesus and He hasnít changed since His time on earth. We typically think the subject of Godís wrath is almost exclusively an Old Testament doctrine, but the teaching of Jesus shows that is simply not the case. No prophet, Old or New Testament speaks as graphically or as often about the ultimate expression of the wrath of God as does Jesus Christ.
The church in America has not always been silent on this issue. To show you how far we have drifted, let me read to you a brief excerpt from a sermon preached on this subject some time ago. Listen to these words preached in a church but addressed to the unredeemed sinners in the church, ďThat God holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked; this wrath toward you burns like fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else, but to be cast into the fire; he is of purer eyes than to bear to have you in his sight; you are ten thousand times more abominable in his eyes, than the most hateful venomous serpent is in ours. You have offended him infinitely more than ever a stubborn rebel did his prince and yet it is nothing but his hand that holds you from falling into the fire every moment...O sinner! Consider the fearful danger you are in: it is a great furnace of wrath, a wide and bottomless pit, full of the fire of wrath, that you are held over in the hand of that God, whose wrath is provoked and incensed as much against you, as against many of the damned in hell. You hang by a slender thread, with the flames of divine wrath flashing about it, and ready every moment to singe it, and burn it asunder.Ē
That sermon was given not by some uneducated, fear mongering, emotionally manipulative, money grubbing, self serving itinerant as many would suppose. That sermon was given by the first President of what we now call Princeton University. It was given by the man who, more than any other single person, is acknowledged to be not only the finest theologian ever produced by America, but also the greatest intellect ever produced by America. I speak of Jonathan Edwards. Some have assailed Edwards for his alleged over statement in his treatment of the anger of God toward sinners. Edwards himself said, ďAfter we have said our utmost and thought our utmost [about Godís wrath], all that we have really said or thought is but a faint shadow of what really is.Ē
My own judgment when I look at the Biblical record--the Old and New Testament is that if Edwards, in his strong emphasis on this topic was imbalanced, he was not nearly so imbalanced as the church in her silence on this topic is today. The times and culture have changed since 1741 when that sermon was originally preached, but the biblical data on this topic has not changed one jot or tittle. The fact that we find ourselves repulsed by this area of truth is understandable. If you arenít on some emotional level repulsed by this topic there is something wrong with you. But the fact that this topic is not pleasant can in no way justify our avoiding it. The church is thoroughly imbalanced today and the results are all too evident.
That leads us to our third point which is: The abuse of the doctrine of the wrath of God has had a strongly negative effect on the church. Let me give you four negative effects this lack of emphasis on the wrath of God has had on the church. Last week, we saw that one of the reasons why we do not aggressively share the gospel with those who need it is because we are embarrassed. I think it is beyond dispute that another reason we do not share it as aggressively as we should is we lack a sense of urgency. The first negative effect this downplaying of the wrath of God has had is: we lack a sense of urgency for the lost. Although we may give mental assent to the fact that God punishes sinners, we do not have that truth as a set conviction of our heart. That truth doesnít burn within us as it should. If we really in our hearts were deeply convicted of the fact that God in His holy anger is right now at this moment revealing his wrath against sin and sinners and will consummate that wrath by pouring out his eternal anger in hell, then our urgency to share the gospel would be increased.
To put it another way, how can a person have a burden for the salvation of another unless they are well acquainted with what people are saved from? Acclaimed New testament scholar Leon Morris says rightly, ďSalvation for Paul is essentially a salvation FROM as well as a salvation unto.Ē A god who has been declawed and defanged of his wrath, is a god who will, in all likelihood find it in his big heart to somehow pardon our family and friends who arenít true believers. That must be the unspoken assumption of many believers who, though claiming to love their unbelieving family and friends, do little if any praying for, or witnessing to them. The only other possible explanation for a lack of urgency on their behalf is that they really donít care whether the person suffers the present and future wrath of God.
Do we see sinners through the biblical lens of Godís wrath? Do we understand how God views them? Let me give you just one biblical metaphor to help us see whether we view sinners through the lens of Godís wrath. In Revelation 19:15 Jesus is pictured on his return as the One who ďtreads the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God Almighty.Ē Revelation 14:20 completes the metaphor. It says, ď...and blood flowed out of the [wine]press...Ē Christ is pictured as the One who stands in the middle of a vat of ripe grapes and it is his weight, as he stands and walks on the press which causes the grapes to ooze out their juices...their blood! How does that text represent the sinner? As the ripe grape under the heel of Christ!! The sinners who we meet and talk with every day are pictured in Scripture--Old and New Testament (this is a quotation from Isaiah) as fruit which is ripening for the fire of hell. Every day they live apart from Christ, they grow more and more ripe and when they are fully ripened, Christ harvests them and tramples them in his wrath. That is one way in which God views sinners--is that the way we view them--as ripening for the fires of hell? How can we have a biblical burden for the lost if we do not see them from a biblical perspective?
A husband and a wife who donít know Jesus Christ bring a child into the world--a person who will live somewhere forever. They beam with pride about his accomplishments--they brag to their relatives about his talents and gifts. But if that person remains unsaved--without the benefit of the gospel, from an eternal perspective, those parents have done little more than provide, in the person of their child, fuel for the fire of hell. The child they are so proud of and who they so lovingly bring into this world will spend the overwhelming majority of his existence in torment under the wrath of God. Do we see people from a biblical, eternal perspective? We lack a sense of urgency for the lost.
A second negative effect of this imbalance with respect to Godís wrath is the cheap grace we see so prevalently in the church today. If sin doesnít make God angry, that leaves the door wide open for so called Christians who donít act like Chris--who intellectually assent to the facts of the gospel, but who view comprehensive obedience to God as more or less optional. A crucial part of faith for any true believer is having a healthy, biblical fear of God. Jeremiah, looking ahead at one of the blessings of the New covenant in Christ says in Jeremiah 32:40, ď...I will inspire them to fear me, so that they will never turn away from me.Ē Do you hear the relationship between fearing God and not sinning against God? There is a direct correlation between the two. Having a God placed, biblical sense of Godís wrath is indispensable God in helping us to fear God which, according to Jeremiah helps us stay obedient to God. Without a deep sense of the God who angers, cheap grace rushes in and before you know it, you have a mess of so called Christians who donít act a thing like Christ.
A third negative effect caused by this lack of emphasis on the wrath of God is seen in the way we present the gospel to others when we do present it. The gospel is often seen fundamentally as that which God has provided to help people live more fulfilling lives, a way to put more spring into their step, the means by which they can be free of troubling habits and addictions. All those things are well and good and are indeed wonderful blessings of the gospel. But let us never forget that the fundamental blessing of the gospel on a human level is it delivers a sinner from the wrath of a holy God. The most daunting problem faced by the sinner today is not that he is unfulfilled or is not happy or is bound by an addition. Their biggest problem by far is that, to use the words of John 3:36, ďthe wrath of God rests on [them].Ē Is that the way we preach the gospel? Is the gospel primarily Godís chosen method of making unhappy people, happy or is it His gracious response to sin which He must punish with his holy wrath? Absent a strong awareness of the wrath of God, the gospel is reduced to little more than another in a long line of self improvement methodologies--a spiritual cup of warm milk for the troubled soul.
Also, if we carried this deep conviction of the truth of Godís holy anger at sin, the glory of His mercy shown in the gospel would take on added radiance and luster. A fourth negative effect of this imbalance weíve already touched on is a lack of deep appreciation for Godís grace and mercy. If you have a lukewarm, superficial, attitude about the wrath of God, you will have, without fail--in spite of your protests to the contrary, a lukewarm, superficial appreciation of Godís mercy in the gospel. This we see all too clearly today. When was the last time you wept and were broken over thoughts of Godís goodness and mercy to you in sparing you from the wrath you so desperately deserve? How can we appreciate our salvation, how can we have a biblical burden to share the gospel--how can we appreciate the mercy and grace of God in the gospel, how can we grasp the significance of Paulís letter to the Romans unless we are first more fully convicted with one of his underlying convictions?
Jesus said it this way in Luke 7:47, ď...he who has been forgiven little loves little.Ē The converse of that must also be true-- ďhe who has been forgiven much, loves much.Ē We could put it another way, ďHe who understands what He has been delivered from shows more gratitude to His deliverer.Ē The classic example of this is Luther. Luther, before his conversion was laboring to please a holy God by trying to perfectly fulfill His law. He was in torment as He felt Godís angry glare passing over all his efforts to please God under the law. When asked about his love for God he said, ďLove God, sometimes I hate God.Ē He felt the justly deserved condemnation--the pulverizing weight of the wrath of a holy God. But then Luther discovered the gospel--the wonderful truth that ďa righteousness from God is revealed.Ē The crushing weight was lifted--this burden which he had labored under so intensely, in a moment in time was transferred to Christ--He was free and in His liberty, God used him and the other reformers to change the course of history.
This teaching is central to Paulís theology in Romans. It is no accident that the first major doctrinal section on this marvelous treatise on the gospel deals with the wrath of God. The closer we are to having the same understanding of the wrath of God as Paul the closer we will be to grasping the depth not only of chapter one, but of the entire book of Romans. The church, perhaps for fear of sounding irrelevant has largely ignored this doctrine. We dare not do so. Let others write this teaching off as irrelevant and passé. May we, by Godís grace have a firm and experiential conviction of this truth so the abuses caused by ignoring this truth may be corrected and Christ be exalted.
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