The Judgment and Wrath of God – An Unpopular but Necessary Theme
One summer, a family man (and personal friend) traveled to Paris, where he spent a morning enjoying Luxembourg Gardens. In time, he noticed a group of mothers who, he realized, were so engrossed in their conversation that they tilted toward neglect of their children. He watched as one child wandered ever farther from her mother in the crowded park. Not yet two, she began to follow a family, apparently thinking its mother was her mother. When the group crossed a street and hurried onward, the child was finally quite alone. The man, still watchful, jogged toward the child, scooped her up, and returned her to her mother. The mother did not thank the man. No, possibly in a vain attempt to deflect attention from her laxity, she loudly accused the man of attempted child abduction and summoned the police. The police took him into custody and interrogated him for the next eleven hours.
Listeners might react to this story differently, but I told it recently to prompt reflection on injustice. After all, the man was treated most unfairly. More broadly false accusations can cause great harm, but accusers almost always get away with it. Is that right?
A story about injustice is beneficial because it is hard but necessary to preach on God’s justice and his wrath toward sin. Preaching on wrath and judgment is difficult in more than one way. Certain preachers barely interact with secular people, in sermons at least. They preach to their enclave and everyone nods gravely when he describes God’s judgment people who do bad things, forgetting that even good church-goers make false accusations on occasion. So pastors are tempted to please the faithful by merely announcing a doctrine.
Other preachers lead churches that engage secular people every week. They think it essential to address their sincere objections and do not avoid them. They know that God’s wrath and God judgment belong in the same box as sex ethics, gender roles, and blood atonement. They are topics we address with care, whenever they arise in Scripture. The aim is so present biblical teaching in ways that make sense to a secular person, even as they challenge secular sensibilities.
The temptation, for the engaging preacher, is clear. The proper desire to avoid unnecessary offense may lead him to minimize, neglect, or explain away doctrines that offend unbelievers, as well as believers who are infected by secular thought. The faithful expository preacher will present the doctrines of sin and judgment and do so in ways that help secular people and believers make sense of them. This is essential, since the gospel barely makes sense if we omit God’s wrath toward sin. Paul clearly linked the two when Paul introduced the gospel in Romans 1:17-18.
For in it [the gospel] the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, “The righteous shall live by faith.” For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men.
Paul then shows how human godlessness and injustice deserve wrath, from 1:18-3:20, before the he states the gospel from 3:21-6:23. For example, Romans 2 says judgment no one can really object to God’s judgment, since we judge others and do the same thing.
Do you suppose, O man—you who judge those who practice such things and yet do them yourself—that you will escape the judgment of God? Or do you presume on the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance? But because of your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed.
If we think, we will escape judgment since nothing has happened yet, we deceive ourselves. In this age justice seems sporadic, but God is giving us time to repent and we ought to do so, for with each sin and each day of heedlessness, we store up more wrath for ourselves.
This message is unpopular but essential, and Paul’s presentation has a fairness that should make it easier to hear. We notice that Paul is direct - He says “You” – but “You” includes everyone, Jew and Greek (2:9-10). Today we might say “Christians and non-Christians” or “church-goers and outsiders.” As Paul challenges the unbeliever, his teaching also connects with everyone. He points out that God’s judgment is fair, since everyone faces judgment, including religious people. And he says God judges humans demonstrate they believe in the need for justice by judging others – sometimes for the very sins they denounce.
The Spirit must receive this teaching, along with the call to repent and believe, but contemporary preachers might practice the gentle correction Paul commends (2 Tim. 2:25), by telling stories, as Jesus did, since stories can break through mental and ethical resistance by appealing to the imagination.
When my first child was almost two, I heard a most painful radio report about a child her age. A father and his daughter were in their front yard one morning when a car was weaving down their street. Suddenly, it jumped the curb, struck the child, and took her life. I ached for the parents, but my grief changed to anger as the report continued. The driver, who was drunk, had been jailed for drunk driving just the night before. It was his fifth such arrest and the law required substantial jail time. Nonetheless, in defiance of the law, a judge had released the man at 9 a.m. that morning. An hour later, the child was gone. My grief for the parents quickly shifted to anger at the driver and outrage toward the judge, who failed to do justice and therefore failed to protect his people.
Few clamor for God’s judgment today, but the world does expect judges to do justice. My anger toward an unjust judge is hardly unique. Indeed, the news outlet surely ran the story because it commands attention. Indeed stories of injustice fill the media because humans, made in God’s image, rightly yearn for justice, at least occasionally.
The preacher who engages secular listeners and their thought patterns knows that “sin” has virtually disappeared from public discourse. The chief cause is the decline of biblical concepts of God. If there is no personal God, the biblical concept of sin loses its coherence. For example, Buddhism has no proper concept of sin because Buddhism has no supreme deity to offend. Buddhism has laws, but no divine lawgiver. So Buddhists warn of excessive attachment to this world, but they do not decry sin. Atheists and Deists are similar. If there is no God, there is no sin. So the public speaks of offense, error, weakness, crime, prejudice, oppression, and hatred, but not sin. Everyone agrees that people violate moral codes and tear the social fabric. But Scripture uniquely says sin offends God.
While humans tend to be quick to judge others - the rich who manipulate the law to grab land from the poor and the politicians who call themselves human rights advocates and become brutal autocrat after taking office. But we should see that we are not qualified to be “the judge.” First, we don’t know enough. Worse, the accusations of self-appointed critics are often inaccurate, as self-nominated judges accuse people of their own faults. So the greedy detect avarice, the lustful see affairs, and the manipulative perceive plots.
Scripture says God “judges justly” (1 Pet. 2:23, James 4:12). He is impartial - not soft with one and harsh with another. Better yet, he will not exercise the justice we deserve if we accept his remedy for sin – repentance and faith in Jesus, who endured and exhausted the punishment sinners deserve. That gives him the right to say “I forgive you” and he is glad to do so, whenever anyone repents.
Dan Doriani teaches Theology and Ethics at Covenant Seminary. He earned his M.Div. from Westminster and talked everyone into a joint Yale/Westminster Ph.D. He also pastored a very small church for five years and a very large one for eleven. He plays tennis, hikes mountains, wrangles grandchildren, speaks at conferences, and writes books. His most recent is Work: Its Purpose, Dignity, and Transformation.