“The Wrath of God” 1 Thess. 2:13-16 June 18, 1995
v. 16 “of God” in only the poorest manuscripts. It is, of course, God’s wrath that Paul is speaking of, so some scribe made it explicit. In some ways, it is still more impressive as Paul wrote it: “the wrath has come upon them…” I have no idea why the NIV translators put “of God” in their text. Nobody thinks it is the original reading. [Not KJV, NKJV, etc]
“Has come upon them” is perhaps best taken to mean not that they are already experiencing the wrath, but that it is absolutely certain (as “glorified” in Rom. 8:30.” Otherwise, Paul could be referring to certain disasters (some mentioned by Josephus) that happened in Judea not long before Paul wrote 1 Thess., which he took as anticipations or foretastes of the divine wrath that would eventually befall them.
To put it bluntly, Christianity doesn’t make any sense without the reality of God’s wrath against sinners. Christianity, Paul already said at the end of chapter 1, is a message about the Savior, Jesus Christ, who delivers us from the wrath to come. But, if indeed there is no such thing as divine wrath which threatens sinners in the world to come, then there is nothing for us to be saved from and nothing for a Savior to do. Deny divine wrath and you must admit that Christianity, at least that Christianity founded on the Bible, is all wrong. It is a grand and glorious solution to a problem that doesn’t exist.
There are, to be sure, a few other doctrines as essential to Christianity as divine wrath, but not many. Here lies the reason for everything.
Paul certainly thought so. He began his exposition of the Christian faith in his letter to the Romans with the assertion of the threat of divine wrath that looms above all men on account of their sin. On that foundation, he then went on to consider faith in Jesus Christ the redeemer as man’s only hope to avoid that wrath of God. Take away divine wrath and the whole scheme of Christian truth loses its purpose and its meaning.
Now, it is true, and some have sought to make a great deal of this fact, that in some parts of the Bible, even in some letters of Paul, one hears nothing of the wrath of God. This, some have argued, is proof that the doctrine of God’s wrath is not that important and can be removed from Christianity without serious loss. There is no mention of the wrath of God, for example, in Paul’s letters to the Philippians or to the Galatians. But, think about it. The books of the Bible were written to Christians, in the main, and it is not that surprising that Paul would not mention the wrath to come in letters sent for other purposes. He doesn’t always mention heaven either, but that does not mean that heaven is not an essential part of the Christian faith.
The fact is, the way Paul makes mention of the wrath of God in 1 Thessalonians demonstrates conclusively how essential to the entire scheme of Christian truth this doctrine, this reality actually is. He mentions it three times: first in the last verse of the first chapter; then in the text we read this morning, v. 16, and then, finally, in 5:9 where we read “For God did not appoint us to suffer wrath but to receive salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ.”
What is noteworthy about all three of these references to the wrath of God is how simply and artlessly Paul makes mention of this terrible reality. It is not something he is urging them to believe, it is something rather that he assumes that any Christian understands and accepts as fundamental reality. His statements about the wrath of God are not controversial in style, as if he is seeking to prove that there is such a wrath of God, but have instead the form of the assumption of a fact not in dispute.
Now it is important to face this fact — that divine wrath lies beneath the Christian faith as a foundation — for it is widely denied. It is denied by those outside the faith who despise Christianity for teaching any such thing. It is denied by many who suppose themselves within the faith, but want to have nothing to do with this doctrine and imagine that Christianity is better off without it. And it is denied by you and me, who admit the wrath to come, but so often live with little or no living sense of this reality.
One of the ways in which psychological studies have confirmed the teaching of the Bible is in the elaborate demonstration they have provided of the penchant of human beings to deny what they do not wish to believe and what they hope is not true. We speak of people as being “in denial” because they refuse to face the facts. The facts can be punishingly obvious to everyone else, but he or she will not see them: that he is an alcoholic, or that she is dying, or that he really is the problem in the relationship, and so on.
No wonder then that there is such a widespread denial — in all the forms denial may take — of this doctrine of the divine wrath against sin and sinners! If the truth be told, if we could alter Christianity in any way, it would be this doctrine that most of us would wish to change.
C.S. Lewis spoke for a great many Christians, when he wrote:
“There is no doctrine which I would more remove from Christianity than this [doctrine of wrath and hell] if it lay in my power. But it has the full support of Scripture and, especially, of our Lord’s own words; it has always been held by Christendom; and has the support of reason.”
He was right, of course. This doctrine, repellant as it is in some ways, does have the full support of Scripture. Divine wrath is mentioned more often than divine love in the Bible (three times as often according to one study). This is not because God is three times more a God of wrath than he is a God of love, but surely because we are three times more inclined to doubt and deny his wrath than we are his love.
But if this is so, then how important it must be for us to consider carefully the doctrine of divine wrath when it is raised in the Scripture. And this is all the more true because it is a doctrine that is subject to all manner of prejudice and misunderstanding. We not only need to believe in divine wrath, we need to be sure that we are believing it rightly, as it is taught in Holy Scripture, and not in the misshapen form in which the truth is often presented to our minds.
So, look again at Paul’s statement in vv. 15-16 and see what is in fact said about the wrath of God.
I. The first thing we should note is that Paul
does, in fact, speak of “wrath.”
The term that Paul uses is a word that is exactly translated with the English word wrath or anger. It is the word that is used in texts in which we are commanded not to be angry or to give ourselves over to fits of rage. Now, we will see later that, obviously, God’s wrath is not some fit of personal pique or temper tantrum. He is the holy God and his anger, his wrath, is subject to his holiness.
But, it is important, very important, to notice that it is, in fact, anger and wrath that the Bible speaks of. It is not simply God’s justice that befalls the enemies of the gospel; not simply his disfavor or his opposition, but his anger, his wrath.
Some of you may be aware that a major effort was made in the middle of this century, led by the British scholar C.H. Dodd, to depersonalize the concept of wrath in the NT. He wanted us to think of wrath, not as the active anger of God against sin, but simply as the inevitable outworking of the consequences of sin. The wrath of God, Dodd argued, referred to the results of sin but not to any subjective state of mind in God, not to anger as a divine emotion. Wrath is simply a way of speaking of the outworking of justice in the world and the world to come.
But that conclusion, though very popular for some time, was demonstrated in a number of careful studies [especially Leon Morris’ The Apostolic Preaching of the Cross, one of the most important works of 20th century biblical theology] to be contrary to the plain statements of the Bible and the argument of the Apostle Paul himself. Wrath is personal, it is what God “feels” — though obviously the omniscient and sovereign and holy God “feels” in an utterly different way than man does — it is the condition of his mind and heart and from it flows the punishment of sin.
This is what the Scripture everywhere asserts and in the most uncompromising language. “God is angry with the wicked every day.” “Sin is the abominable thing that God hates.” “God’s anger flares up in a moment.” “Kiss the Son lest he be angry and you perish in the way.” And a great many other such statements. This is why Paul uses the ordinary words for anger and wrath in speaking of God’s indignant displeasure at sin and why no effort should be made to evade the simple force of those words.
But, do you see how very much more serious everything becomes when we acknowledge that there is really wrath and anger in God on account of human sin? This explains why when someone, even someone who thought himself a Christian for other reasons, comes face to face with the truth of divine wrath, it utterly transforms his whole understanding of the faith and of Jesus Christ.
R.V.G. Tasker was Professor of NT at the University of London in the 1940s and, in most respects, a typical British professor of biblical studies, liberal in most of his views, willing to accommodate modern prejudices almost everywhere in his faith. But, in 1947 he heard Martin Lloyd-Jones deliver a sermon on the atonement and the wrath of God and his life was changed forever. He became an ardent defender of the historic Christian faith in Jesus Christ as our deliverer from the wrath to come, became a central figure in British Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship, edited the IV Press’ series of Tyndale New Testament Commentaries, and wrote and spoke everywhere on behalf of the Gospel. One of his most famous productions was a IVF address later published as “The Biblical Doctrine of the Wrath of God.” It cost him. He himself later said that, for taking this stand for Christ and the gospel, he was “sent to Coventry” by his colleagues in the divinity faculty. But such is the difference it makes to embrace this doctrine and this reality and to believe and to live according to it.
II. The second thing we should note is that this
wrath is justice.
The point is made everywhere in Holy Scripture but clearly here as well. It is not at all that God simply dislikes certain people or that he finds himself irritated by certain personalities. That may be true of us, but it is not true of him. His wrath is always the expression of his justice and his anger is always provoked solely by sin.
Here Paul enumerates the sins, the particularly heinous sins that have provoked the divine wrath against the Jewish opponents of the gospel, including their murder of the Prince of Life himself. Their sins, he says at the end of v. 15, are committed both against God and man and amount — whatever they might protest to the contrary — to a hatred of both God and man. And so, by killing the Lord Jesus and by opposing the spread of the message of eternal life, they have “heaped up” their sins.
Now this means increasingly less in our culture, even in the church I daresay. We live in an age that has thoroughly confused the entire matter of sin and accountability for sin. Sin is now weakness, usually excusable, always understandable; and guilt is now not actual liability to punishment — what the word actually means — but a bad feeling about ourselves, a poor self-concept based on disappointment with ourselves for failing to live up to our own standards. The cure for this kind of guilt is not redemption, forgiveness, and new obedience; but an adjustment of the standard so that we can meet it and once again feel good about ourselves.
Guilt has become guilt feelings and salvation has become feeling good about oneself again.
But this is not the Bible’s teaching at all, nor is it a healthy way to view human behavior as we are all finding out most painfully in our day. The Bible is much less worried about your guilt feelings than it is worried about your guilt — your liability to fall under the wrath of God on account of your sins — and the Bible holds out as the true solution for you unhappiness with yourself the joy and gratitude and love that fill the heart of the men or women who know that when they were God’s enemies Christ died for them.
God’s wrath is a function of his justice and holiness. That is what makes it so terrible a threat to sinners. It can no more be evaded than God can cease to be holy and once it has been set on a man or woman it can no more be relaxed or exhausted than God can weary of being holy. You get angry at sin and injustice — very imperfectly and very inconsistency and very hypocritically — but you get angry. A story in the local paper this week told of the dismay of a local family that the drunk driver who killed their wife and mother will serve only four or five years in prison. We understand the concept of guilt and judgment and know ourselves a holy wrath against sin, however mixed with unholiness our wrath must always be. How much more God, the holy God, whose eyes are too pure to behold iniquity and who cannot, by his nature, cannot clear the guilty.
III. The third thing to notice is that this divine wrath is patient.
The NIV renders the last of v. 16 “The wrath of God has come upon them at last.” So does the RSV. The NASB has “The wrath of God has come upon them to the utmost.” It is a complicated question of translation with commentators taking both sides and usually expressing some uncertainty as to the most likely rendering.
If it is to be taken “at last” it only reinforces a point already made in vv. 15-16. The sentence of divine wrath did not come upon Israel for the first of her sins; it came only after sin upon sin against God and man had been heaped up to the limit. They killed God’s Son, but long before that they had killed the prophets who came to them speaking God’s word, warning them of his wrath, offering them his forgiveness. Their killing Jesus, even their opposition to Paul’s preaching was not an isolated act. Stephen asked them, in the course of his defense in Acts 7 (v. 52), “Was their ever a prophet your fathers did not persecute?” Their present posture of hateful opposition to the good news was the continuation of an attitude that God had endured for centuries.
Remember the Amorites of the OT, the inhabitants of Canaan before Israel conquered it? God promised the descendants of Abraham that land centuries before he enabled them to possess it, because he said, “the iniquity of the Amorites has not reached its full measure.” That is, he would deal in the full fury of his wrath with sinners until their sins had been heaped up to the limit. He does not desire the death of the wicked, but that all should come to repentance and the knowledge of the truth and so he waits, and waits, and even is willing to make his own people suffer that he might wait still more, allow a people to sin still more grievously against them and against Him. But finally the point of no return is reached, the sins have been heaped up to their limit, a people’s iniquity is full, and then God’s wrath comes upon them, either in the experience of it or in the certainty of their eventual experience of it.
God does not fly off the handle. His wrath, his anger, waits, far longer than it need wait, for the Bible never says that God delights to display his wrath the way it says he delights to show mercy.
C.S. Lewis says somewhere that “Anger is the fluid that love bleeds when you cut it.” Well so it is with the wrath and anger of God. He desires repentance, he waits for repentance and faith, but finally when none will be given, anger is the fluid that his love bleeds when it is cut by human sin and by the viciousness and intractability of human rebellion.
I am, I know only too well, brothers and sisters, unable to serve you in preaching this doctrine of divine wrath as well as you deserved to be served. John “Rabbi” Duncan, the Scottish Presbyterian professor, famous for the depth and passion of his inner life with God, once said that he could never preach about hell — he would turn sick if he did. I wish that were true of me, but that I would then preach hell to you anyway, in my sickness, in faithfulness to the Word of God. The Lord Jesus himself wept over Jerusalem because he could see it in his mind’s eye falling under the divine wrath.
I wish I could weep every time I considered this fact of the divine wrath which is coming upon all who do not believe in Jesus Christ and could always preach this doctrine to you in tears. But, weak and unworthy of the truth as my presentation of it is, we cannot evade, ignore, or deny the truth of divine wrath, for truth it is.
A prominent Seattle sports figure, who claims now to be a Christian, in an article in the paper this week, was quoted as saying: “I’m putting Christ in the center of my life, but it doesn’t mean I can’t have a couple of vodkas after a game or bet on horse once in a while…. If a situation calls for me to curse, I’ll do it. I’m trying to be a better person, but I’m a manager, not a saint.”
So speaks one who does not reckon with the terrible wrath of a holy God and, therefore, with the appalling seriousness of life before God. But we should be slow to judge who have never or rarely spent a sleepless night because of sin, our sin and other’s sin, in a universe ruled and to be judged by a God who calls that sin “the detestable thing that I hate! [Jer. 44:4]”
There is much that is wrong with Dante’s immortal Divine Comedy, including its first part, The Inferno, or his depiction of hell. But it has been rightly called the Christian epic of the sanctification of the soul. And for this reason. The Christian soul thinks most reverently, feels most purely and passionately, and acts most obediently when it has one eye fixed upon the future. And part of that future is the wrath of God that must and will descend upon multitudes of human beings for their inveterate and willful defiance of the grace and the will of God.
It would be very good for all of us to think long and hard about that future and what it must mean for our Christian faith and life today. And begin where Dante begins, as he and the Roman poet Virgil begin their tour of world of the damned by entering through the gate over which is written: “All hope abandon, you who enter here.”