As we saw in our last post, the wrath of God is a reaction to something – but what? In the old covenant, God reacted to sin. He had to. God cannot be God and let sin go unchecked.
But Hebrews 9:26 tells us the sacrifice of Jesus is the once and final solution to sin. As the hymn says, “On the cross where Jesus died, the wrath of God was satisfied.” That’s a reference to God’s wrath against sin (see Rom 8:3).
Because of Jesus, God will never be angry with your sin again. Isn’t that a stunning thought? I’m not saying God has made friends with sin or that sin doesn’t grieve him. I’m saying a just God cannot condemn sin in you when he has already condemned sin in Jesus.
Now that’s what I call the neglected doctrine of wrath!
What triggers the wrath of God?
So in light of the finished work of the cross, what provokes God’s wrath? Paul gives us the answer:
For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men… (Rom 1:18, NKJV)
Remember, wrath is a reaction. So what does God react to? Anything that is un-godly. His wrath is a reaction to those things which are opposed to him. God has to react or he wouldn’t be God. Light cannot coexist with darkness. It is the nature of light to repel darkness. Similarly, it is the nature of God to react to ungodliness.
What is ungodliness? This may surprise you but ungodliness is not sinning per se. The Greek word for ungodliness (asebia) is the opposite of the word for revere or adore. Just as antinomianism is disregard for God’s laws, asebia is disregard for God’s person.
Ungodliness is not bad behavior. Ungodliness is unbelief in the grace of a good God. It’s saying, “God, who needs you? I’m fine without you. I am all the god I need.”
It’s a mistake to tell the sinner that God’s wrath is for them. God’s grace is for them (Rom 5:8). God’s wrath is for those things that would hinder them from receiving grace. God is not opposed to sinners. He is for sinners. Jesus said God loves the whole world. But those things which oppose him he must confront. It’s inevitable. This universe simply isn’t big enough for God and ungodliness to coexist.
In any contest between light and dark, light always wins. Do you see? It has to or else it’s not light. Similarly, in the contest between God and ungodliness, God always wins. He has to or he’s not God.
What is our part in this?
Our part is to abandon the darkness of independent living and come into the light of his glorious love. Our part is to receive from the One who desires to give himself to us. Our part is to open the door, like Zacchaeus, and say, “Come in, Jesus!”
I hope you can see now that the wrath of God has nothing to do with your behavior – good or bad – and everything to do with your God.
If your God is God then God is forever with you and never against you. But if your god is you or some other substitute – if you have kept God at arm’s length – then God is not with you and his wrath abides on you (John 3:36). It’s not that God hates you – he loves you – but if you choose to live with your eyes shut you can’t blame God for the darkness.
Again, for emphasis, when I say “ungodly” I am not referring to generic sinners. I am not talking about those who failed to raise their hand or respond to an altar call. Nor am I talking about those who have run from dead religion. The Father doesn’t hate the prodigal. The Good Shepherd isn’t gunning for the lost sheep.
Ungodly means opposed to God. There’s an action implied. I’m thinking of those who have tasted the goodness of God and spewed it out. Faith is a rest, but unbelief is work. It’s resisting and denying the very life we need to live. It’s a hostile mindset revealed in those who simply cannot stand to be around Jesus – guys like Judas and the religious Pharisees along with self-saviors like the Judaizers. God loves these haters and shows them great kindness. But Paul says those who harden their hearts are heading for trouble. They are storing up wrath against themselves (Rom 2:5). They are the ones doing it; not God.
The ungodly don’t want to be around God and one day God will say, “Okay, have it your way.” Wrath is not God’s choice but their’s.
The two gifts
We who preach grace like to quote Romans 1:16 and 17 but we rarely mention Romans 1:18 and 19. We like the bit about the gospel but we don’t like the bit about wrath. Yet Paul mentions both:
|Good news for those who want it…||Bad news for those who don’t…|
|For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ, for it is the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes, for the Jew first and also for the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith; as it is written, “The just shall live by faith.” (Rom 1:16-17)||For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, because what may be known of God is manifest in them, for God has shown it to them. (Rom 1:18-19)|
Everyone will ultimately receive something from God. They will either receive, by faith the free gift of his righteousness (Rom 1:17), or they will receive, through hard-nosed and stubborn unbelief, the unwanted gift of his wrath (Rom 1:18).
Do you see? We all receive either grace or wrath and the choice is ours.
So what do we do with this?
The most important thing is to give the sinner grace and not wrath. Today is not the day of wrath but the day of grace. As I have said elsewhere, it’s a mistake to use hell as an incentive to evangelize. It is the love of God that draws men. We are ambassadors of grace not wrath. Ours is a ministry of reconciliation not condemnation.
People are hurting and needy. The good news declares that God promises to meet all our needs in Christ Jesus (Php 4:19). We need to stop telling sinners God is angry with them and instead proclaim the good news.
But – and I know this is hard to believe – there are some who look at Jesus and say, “Who needs you?” Giving grace to such people is pointless. They won’t receive it. They’ve tasted it and rejected it.
Who are these people? James gives us some examples when he wrote about powerful men who “slander the noble name” of Jesus (Jas 2:7). He was referring to proud, rich folk who come to church for no reason other than to make themselves look good. James has nothing positive to say about these self-righteous phonies. Instead he says, “God gives grace to the humble but opposes the proud” (Jas 4:6).
God wants to give grace to everyone but the proud are incapable of receiving it. What will they receive if not grace? Maybe they will listen to warnings such as those James provides (see Jas 5:1).
Those who preach grace don’t talk about wrath but one day all the lights will turned on and all those ungodly and unrighteous things which are presently hidden will be seen for what they are.