By Tom Lawson
The first hymn in Alexander Campbell’s 1834 hymnal lifts up these words of praise:
Before Jehovah’s awful1 throne,
Ye nations, bow with sacred joy;
Know that the Lord is God alone;
He can create, and He destroy.
This image of an all-powerful God, who can both create and destroy, calling the nations before him, is given scant attention in worship these days. For the theologically liberal, talk of God standing in judgment of the world is a source of frank embarrassment. For theological conservatives, however, the concept is also quietly avoided as a focus of worship. Descriptions of an angry God bringing judgment upon the wicked just do not fit well into upbeat celebrative worship.
One result of this avoidance is a popular view of God that is biblically distorted. The New Testament church, however, did not flinch at the notion of the wrath of God. It was, in fact, woven into worship and reflected in a passionate desire for the appearing of Christ at the end of the age.
The Necessity of God’s Wrath
The wrath of God ought not to be a source of awkward embarrassment. It is inherent in the very nature of God. As such, the justice of God should be included in the focus of our worship from time to time. One source of our discomfort comes from a very narrow definition of wrath. We often fail to recognize that anger, in some contexts, is a direct result of morality.
The king was enraged. He sent his army and destroyed those murderers and burned their city (Matthew 22:7).
There are certainly times, perhaps most of the time, when our anger is prompted by resentment, irritation, or some perceived personal affront. We get a speeding ticket for going 3 mph over the speed limit. Or, after we’ve waited in line 20 minutes, the girl at the register decides to take her break just as we start unloading our shopping cart. Sadly, this kind of anger, petty and retaliatory, is all too common. We are correct in not wishing to ascribe it to God.
The wrath of God is more akin to what we feel when we come upon a child being cruelly beaten by schoolyard bullies. It is anger that is virtually demanded by basic morality and justice. Anyone who watched in horror last year as more than 300 people, most of them children, were killed by terrorists at a school in the southern Russian town of Beslan, understands the link between ethics and anger. In such circumstances, the absence of outrage would be the mark of moral deficiency.
God is a righteous judge, a God who expresses his wrath every day (Psalm 7:11).
The ancient church, in an even higher sense, held a similar understanding of the wrath directed by God toward the rebellious wicked. God’s wrath is an expression of his goodness, holiness, and righteousness. How could it not, then, be worthy of praise? Could any Christian long for the grand rebellion of humankind against him to continue indefinitely? The ultimate victory over sin and Satan is grounded in the wrath of God.
After these things I heard something like a loud voice of a great multitude in heaven, saying, “Hallelujah! Salvation and glory and power belong to our God; because His judgments are true and righteous; for He has judged the great harlot who was corrupting the earth with her immorality, and He has avenged the blood of His bond-servants on her.” And a second time they said, “Hallelujah! Her smoke rises up forever and ever” (Revelation 19:1-3, New American Standard Version).
The Paradox of Wrath and Grace
One by-product of downplaying the wrath of God is a significant distortion of the message of salvation. If God is not really that angry, then grace is surely not that unexpected. We move from John Newton’s “amazing” grace to “oh-that’s-nice” grace. When the primary focus of the offer of salvation is no longer the removing of our guilt before a justly wrathful judge, then secondary aspects must be elevated. Promises of happiness, inner peace, financial blessings, spiritual power, and a general esprit de corps of the congregation become the central tools of persuasion. People are won by the church instead of being won by the message of the cross and added to the church.
The love of God, we are told frequently, is beyond our ability to understand or measure. As much as this is true, it is just as true that God’s anger is beyond our ability to understand or measure. There is no anger in all creation that is the equal of his anger. Hell, after all, is God’s idea. It is God, not the devil, who holds the power to cast body and soul into Hell (Matthew 10:28). It is at the juxtaposition of these two facets, both the love and wrath of God the Almighty, that we find the cross of Christ.
Ask someone what they know about 18th-century New England preacher Jonathan Edwards. Most will mention only his sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” Oddly, if you had asked a person from that era what Edwards was best known for, it would have been his many sermons on the love of God. Sweeping national revivals, such as the Great Awakening of Edward’s generation, came on the heels of preaching both God’s wrath and God’s grace.
Preaching wrath without a biblical understanding of grace leads only to despair and narrow legalism. Preaching grace, however, without a biblical understanding of wrath leads to Christianity robbed of both its threat and its thrill. We end up with a religion of “be-nice” ethics and “feel-good” churches.
I saw heaven standing open and there before me was a white horse, whose rider is called Faithful and True. With justice he judges and makes war. His eyes are like blazing fire, and on his head are many crowns. He has a name written on him that no one knows but he himself. He is dressed in a robe dipped in blood, and his name is the Word of God. The armies of heaven were following him, riding on white horses and dressed in fine linen, white and clean. Out of his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations. “He will rule them with an iron scepter.” He treads the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God Almighty (Revelation 19:11-15).
With a biblical appreciation for God’s wrath, salvation becomes an object of joyful surprise and unending wonder. Instead of questioning how a loving God could condemn people to Hell, we find ourselves surprised that a good God is letting any of us into Heaven. We stand in the realization that our forgiveness was, perhaps, the most difficult thing in all creation for God to grant. One might even say it was nearly impossible for God to forgive us—nearly impossible for him to let us into Heaven. It required nothing less than the vicarious sacrifice of his one and only Son.
Much of Paul’s letter to the Romans is written to defend the character of God in light of the message of grace. God’s grace as a dismissive wink and a nod at our sins would not be worthy of a righteous Creator. All our best efforts at morality and spirituality could not expunge our guilt or deflect his wrath. Left to our own devices, Edwards is correct, we would truly be sinners in the hands of an angry God. Our only hope in the face of God’s wrath is, itself, also from God. God is both just (our certain doom) and the justifier (our assured forgiveness) of those who come to him in Christ.
Worshiping God in Light of His Wrath
The ancient church went beyond merely acknowledging the wrath of God. It celebrated it in worship as an aspect of God worthy of praise. Their longing for the return of Christ was as much to bring evil to an end as it was to bring New Jerusalem to a beginning. The iron-hard toughness of their faith, tested by the martyrs’ flames, was centered on God who is fearful in his wrath and joyful in his grace.
As Julia Ward Howe wrote in 1861:
Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord;
He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored;
He hath loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword;
His truth is marching on.
Glory! Glory! Hallelujah! His truth is marching on!
1Used here to mean something that fills us with awe or wonder.
Tom Lawson serves on the faculty of Ozark Christian College in Joplin, Missouri.