Presented at Trinity Fellowhip on 3/22/1998
If God's eternal purpose is to build his Church, and if he has chosen before the foundation of the earth to build with sons of Adam and daughters of Eve as living stones, then we must recognize that Sinners are the only building blocks available to be used. And if sinners are dead in their trespasses and sins, then clearly before they can become "living" stones in an eternal temple erected to the praise of Jesus Christ the righteous and holy Son of God, something radical must be done in their hearts to bring them from death in sin to life in holiness. That work is Regeneration, the subject of Eph. 2:1-10. V. 1-3 describes the Death from which we are delivered; v. 4-7 the Life to which we are delivered; and v. 8-10 the Means and the End of that deliverance. In v. 1-3 already we have seen the condition of spiritual death that resulted from the Fall and the world system of evil Satan uses to perpetuate that condition. But before we reach the great turn upward in v. 4, we need to face the most sobering fact of all about our condition in sin apart from Jesus Christ: we are "children of wrath."
The wrath of God is not a doctrine congenial to our modern mentality. We prefer the myth of a God who loves but is not just and would never punish. I once heard a caller on a radio talk show rejecting Christianity because of its barbaric doctrine of a God who planned to "torture the majority of the human race for all eternity" simply because it had not perfectly lived up to his arbitrary rules. We must reckon with the fact that this is how the doctrine of eternal punishment is generally perceived. This perception ought not to intimidate us or dictate our doctrine, but it must be recognized and it does demand a careful response. I will try to outline some of the elements of it today.
Before we even look at the Scriptural depiction of these matters we must recognize that such a view of God--a God who is love simpliciter--is logically impossible. A God who was love alone, love taken out of the context of his other attributes including justice and, yes, wrath, would not BE a God of love at all. Compassion that does not involve implacable opposition to evil is not compassion at all, but foolishness. Mercy that does not respect the demands of justice is not mercy at all, but cruelty. And love that does not entail hatred of sin is not love at all, but sentimentality.
Not only this, but the wrath of God is a reiterated theme of Scripture. Look at the curses God pronounces on those who disobey him in Deut. 29:15-68. These are not just natural consequences of sin of which we are warned; they are direct acts of God. God "will smite thee" with these curses. The wrath of God is in Psalm 2:5. Zephaniah 1:14-18 announces the great and terrible day of the Lord as a day of wrath. But isn't that just the Old Testament? Isn't the New-Testament God a God of mercy instead? Well, let's let him speak for himself. "He that believeth on the Son hath everlasting life. And he that believeth not the Son shall not see life; for the wrath of God abideth on him" (Jn. 3:36). The wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all who suppress the truth in unrighteousness (Rom. 1:18). And when we walked in our sins we were children of wrath, even as the rest (Eph. 2:3).
What does it mean to be "children of wrath"? We have seen that this is a Hebrew idiom. Look at some parallel phrases from the Old Testament. In Deut. 25:2 a "son of stripes" is one who deserves to be beaten. In 1 Sam. 26:15, 2 Sam. 12:5, "sons of death" are those who deserve to die. (These are literal translations--your modern versions may have paraphrased it for you rather than translating it.) Therefore Eph. 2:3 means that sinners are those who by their very nature deserve to have God be angry with them. That is, they have merited and earned his holy displeasure. Such is the condition of all human beings apart from Christ. Such was our condition before we believed. We were sons of wrath. It is inescapable if we believe the Bible: sin makes God angry--not with the uncontrolled passion of human anger but with a resolute, principled, and implacable opposition on the part of the One of whom it is said, "It is a terrible thing to fall into the hands of the living God" (Heb. 10:31).
So resistant are we to this doctrine that merely seeing its Scriptural basis may not be enough to enable us to embrace it. So w must ask WHY Scripture is so insistent upon it. To help you understand this, let me tell you a true story about a human father I once counseled. He was divorced from an adulterous woman in the days when the mother automatically got custody of the children. His son was thus living in the midst of her continuing promiscuity, with a stream of men passing through the apartment. The child support check he sent for the care of his son came back having been cashed in a liquor store. The final straw was when the boy flunked out of first grade because of absenteeism--not because he was sick but because his mother simply did not have the gumption to get him out to the bus stop to catch the school bus and was too hung over to drive him in the morning. He eventually was able to take her to court and win custody. But while we were going through that process, this man said to me, "When I learned these things, I wanted to STRANGLE those people!" I could not blame him. I was angry too. And I would submit that if this story does not fill you with at least a twinge of righteous anger, there is something wrong with you. Curiously, I was not as angry as the father was. Why not? It was not my son. You see, the measure of this father's wrath was precisely the intensity of his love.
It seems then that love and wrath are not incompatible after all. We could in fact define God's wrath as the reaction of his love to sin. Now, the wrath of man does not work the righteousness of God. It is not our place to do the strangling. But on rare occasions we are allowed briefly to empathize with the wrath of God. And if we could see sin objectively and accurately, as God sees it, then we would not only empathize with but concur with the wrath of God revealed from heaven against all unrighteousness--against us. For we would see that sin is all of a piece, and thus we would recoil with the same horror from our own petty vices as we do from those of the wicked, self-centered evil of the mother in the story. They differ only in degree, not in kind.
Not all acts of sin affect another person as obviously as those of this woman. But there is no sin without a victim. Every sin hurts at least two people: the sinner himself, who is degraded, dehumanized, and separated from the God who is the source of all that is good and true, and God, whose creation is polluted and corrupted and destroyed. Yes, when we choose to sin it makes God angry--because he cares! We may say that he loves the sinner but hates the sin, and this is true. But if the sinner chooses to cling to the sin, he must understand that the sin is going to be judged. It makes God angry, and he will not tolerate it forever. So if the sinner clings to the sin, he will be judged along with it--subject to the wrath of God against sin. And in the day of that wrath, who can stand?
Nothing is more relevant than the doctrine of God's wrath against sin. The first thing for which it is relevant is the appreciation of God's love. This might seem ironic at first, but if we have understood the rationale of God's wrath we should have been led to expect it. There is no path to the full realization of God's love except the one that runs through the narrow gate of the doctrines of sin, his wrath, and the cross. Jesus did not die for nice people who had gone astray; he died for sinners. It was for people whose chosen lifestyle, whose basic commitments, and whose very nature offended him to the very core of his being that Jesus died. You see, greater love hath no man than this, that he should lay down his life for a friend. Yes, for a friend, for a good man, some might even dare to die. But God commendeth his love toward us in this, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. That is love incomprehensible, and we cannot begin to understand how incomprehensible it is until we see that it was the accumulated wrath of God against all the sin of the human race which was poured out on Christ at Calvary. He was willing to bear THAT for people who did not yet love him, who were his sworn enemies. Grace is free but it is not cheap. You cannot magnify God's love by minimizing his wrath, for we can only see the depths of that love in the intensity of the wrath that it had to overcome in order to save us. Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! What else can we say?
In the second place, the wrath of God is relevant for living the Christian life. Let us learn to see sin as SIN, as truly deserving the wrath of God, and thus come to hate it in ourselves as he does. We are simply not dealing with reality, we have not yet begun to live as Christ's disciples, until we do.
Finally, the wrath of God has great relevance for our compassion for the lost. When we truly understand that sin is subject to God's wrath and that sinners who cling to sin are as well, then we will plead with men and women to flee from the wrath to come even as Paul did.
Above all, let this sink into the soul of your soul: Yes, sin makes God angry, with a pure and righteous and holy and infinite and implacable anger. But there is one force that is greater: his love. "For God commendeth his love for us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us." Let us learn, as Spenser said, to weigh that love worthily, which we can only do as we see it as the counterpoise to God's wrath. For then and only then can we love God and one another as we ought. May Christ work that love in us for his glory even as he saves us from God's wrath. Amen.
Here endeth the lesson.
Dr. Donald T. Williams