Years ago (before Facebook, Twitter or blogging existed), I used to send out group emails in which I addressed a variety of Christian topics. At one point I warned against a popular evangelism and discipleship program that distorted the Gospel so horribly that non-Christian groups were adapting it to advance their false teachings.
As you can imagine, I received tremendous pushback from many of my friends. The email that made the greatest impression on me came from a dad of one of my close girlfriends. He very forcefully defended the program, but not with the Word of God. Instead, he praised it because it emphasized God’s love and never mentioned His wrath. This an complained that he had heard fire and brimstone preaching all his life, and therefore he appreciated teaching that excluded all such negativity.
I felt disappointed by that man’s rejection of balanced Biblical teaching. But the email he sent reminded me that even professing Christians can fashion God into their ideas of how He should conduct Himself. And I admit that I’d prefer God to lay aside His wrath and concentrate on making me happy and comfortable. I suspect you share my preference. After all, most of us equate love with happiness and comfort rather than with wrath, don’t we?
In my last essay, I wrote about the Father’s love for us, basing my thoughts on John 3:16:
For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life. (NASB95)
It’s indeed a beautiful verse — arguably the most beloved verse in the entire Bible. How wonderful that the Father loves us so profoundly that He sacrificed His only begotten Son to keep us from perishing! Ironically, we can get so caught up in the splendor of this verse that we forget to ask ourselves some questions about it. Those questions need to be asked and answered if we want to really see the beauty of the Father’s love.
Why would God’s love make it necessary for Him to give His only begotten Son? Why would anyone perish if the Father hadn’t given His Son? How was it loving for God to require Jesus to undergo such a tortuous and humiliating death? Why did He say no when Jesus asked that the cup of suffering pass Him by (Luke 22:41-42)? These questions may momentarily spoil the warm fuzzies of John 3:16, yet a critical reading of the verse actually demands that we ask them.
Much to our chagrin, answering these questions drives us to Scriptures about the wrath of God.
Like my girlfriend’s dad, we’d rather not spend time thinking about God’s wrath. I agree; it’s anything but a pleasant subject, and certainly appears incongruous with our thoughts about a loving Father. Be that as it may, the apostle Paul definitely considered the wrath of God as a powerful backdrop for displaying His love, kindness and mercy. Look at this familiar passage from his letter to the Ephesians:
And you were dead in your trespasses and sins, 2 in which you formerly walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, of the spirit that is now working in the sons of disobedience. 3 Among them we too all formerly lived in the lusts of our flesh, indulging the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, even as the rest. 4 But God, being rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, 5 even when we were dead in our transgressions, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved), 6 and raised us up with Him, and seated us with Him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, 7 so that in the ages to come He might show the surpassing riches of His grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. ~~Ephesians 2:1-7 (NASB95)
This passage begins with an explanation of God’s righteous wrath towards us. Paul tells us, in verse 2, that we followed “the course of this world,” meaning that we conformed to ideas and practices that originate from man’s mind (and possibly demonic influences) rather than from the Lord. Paul’s indictment of humanity continues in verse 3, particularly as he describes us as ““indulging the desires of the flesh and of the mind,” which suggests that our servitude to sin is quite voluntary. Paul concludes his portrait of the human race by proclaiming that we are “by nature children of wrath.” None of us like seeing that our sin rightfully deserves God’s wrath, but we absolutely must accept that horrible truth.
Once we come to terms with the reality that we deserve nothing other than God’s wrath, we are able to understand the beauty of His love. Verse 4 breaks off mid-sentence, but that itty-bitty verse overflows with more content than I can adequately cover. Notice, however, those two lovely words, “But God.” Paul uses them to shift the spotlight from our totally wretched condition to the glorious Lord and His power to transform us. With these two small words, He shows Himself to be the active agent in our salvation process. Remember that verse 1 pronounces us “dead.” God needs to do everything regarding our salvation because our sin-saturated natures leave us as spiritually lifeless corpses, completely incapable of effecting our own salvation. We would be hopeless…but God has intervened!
He has intervened by contrasting our moral bankruptcy with His richness in mercy. Specifically, He shows the “immeasurable riches of His grace” in Christ Jesus (Ephesians 2:7). Paul has previously explained “the riches of His grace” as having come through Christ’s blood (Ephesians 1:7), through which He forgives our sins.
Going back to John 3:16, then, we get a clearer picture of why God’s love made it essential that He give His only begotten Son. God’s wrath towards us was justified, so His perfect justice demanded satisfaction. In His exquisite mercy, the Father so loved us that He gave His only begotten Son to die in our place. Yes, that reality should warm our hearts. But His love is especially heartwarming precisely because He satisfied His wrath towards us by mercifully sacrificing His Son on the cross.
What an incredible role God the Father plays in bringing wretches like us to salvation! Surely we must praise Him for such overwhelming kindness and love, appreciating that love all the more as we see the wrath that He keeps us from enduring. Truly, He is a gracious Father!
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