The Wrath of God and Your Joy

Yesterday, I posted a note about the PCUSA’s decision to drop the hymn “In Christ Alone” from their hymnbook. Reports say that the song’s reference to “the wrath of God” was just too much for those making the decision. The songwriters refused to give permission to amend the language, so the PCUSA decided to leave it out.

I have to say that I have been quite surprised at the response to this short post—a response that is still ongoing. I am not surprised, however, that the topic still provokes strong responses from people—strong reactions on both sides of the issue.

In some ways, how one feels about the wrath of God reveals almost everything that’s most important about a person. How one feels about God’s wrath defines a person’s view of hell, of the nature of God, and even of the meaning of the cross itself. Thus to get God’s wrath wrong means to get almost everything else wrong as well.

On Sunday, I preached a sermon in my church about hell and the wrath of God. In this message, I make the case that every true Christian will one day lift up his voice in celebration when God bares His arm in judgment against His enemies. In other words, your ability to rejoice in God’s wrath will one day define whether or not you know Him at all. You can download the message here or listen to it below:

[audio:http://www.kenwoodbaptistchurch.com/filerequest/1559.mp3]

What we believe about God and about His Son Jesus is the most important thing about us. And yet countless people recoil at the God of the Bible and turn instead to a god of their own imagination. Any formulation of deity that excludes God’s justice and wrath against sin is not the God of the Bible.

A wrathless god shorn of His justice is no god worth worshipping. Nor is he a god able to convict and save sinners. When wrath is taken away, so is the gospel. And that is why this discussion matters.

31 Responses to The Wrath of God and Your Joy

  1. Bill Gernenz July 30, 2013 at 3:04 pm #

    Those last two brief paragraphs are more than well-stated, they are the bottom-line. We accept Scripture as God’s final revelation of himself in Christ, or we creat a God of our own making. Thanks, Denny.

  2. Mitch Dean July 30, 2013 at 5:36 pm #

    “A wrathless god shorn of His justice is no god worth worshipping.” It may be purely anecdotal but I seem to consistently observe that folks who spend a lot of time valuing, protecting and defending the notion of the importance of the wrath of god seem to be those evangelical christians who “really like being right.” If you read what they write or listen to what they say about it, you see a kind of delight in their eyes and it becomes clear that the true reason they cling to and hope for god’s wrath is that they believe this wrath will be their great revenge. If there is mighty divine wrath, and a lot of it, these people hope that they will eventually see the violent destruction of those who have ever dared to speak against them. Doesn’t seem very christian to me.

    • Denny Burk July 31, 2013 at 2:45 pm #

      Dear Mitch,

      The Bible’s teaching about God’s wrath gives no room for any person to feel superior to anyone else. The point is that we all fall short of God’s holiness are are in desperate need of a Savior–someone who has absorbed the wrath that was due to us. The doctrine of God’s wrath spotlights our inadequacies before God. For some, it also becomes the occasion for a humble dependence upon the Savior for redemption.

      In a related post, I wrote about the fact that God’s wrath wasn’t always so strange to American ears. Even in popular culture, people by and large believed that they were accountable to a transcendent God who holds the world accountable. This moral sense accounted for much that has been good in our nation’s life. The loss of it has not been a good thing, in my view.

      Thanks for reading and weighing-in.

      Denny

      • Mitch Dean August 8, 2013 at 4:30 pm #

        Hey Denny, I’ll definitely defer to you on the bible’s teaching but I’m sure you’re right that it doesn’t give room for any person to feel superior. Even though that’s the case, it’s funny that it doesn’t seem to stop the haughty arrogance of most evangelical christians I encounter and does nothing to dim that gleam in their eyes and the palpable excitement in their voices when they shame the unbelieving heretics and tell them what god will do to them. I think it’s one thing to believe that you are accountable to god but something else entirely to celebrate and rejoice in the wrath of god.

        • Denny Burk August 8, 2013 at 4:38 pm #

          Mitch, who behaves like this? Is it really fair to paint “most evangelical Christians” with such a broad brush?

  3. Chris Ryan July 30, 2013 at 10:01 pm #

    This post caused me to think a great deal b/cs there are some points made here that I strongly agree with…and some others made that greatly confuse me.

    I’ll start with where I agree: Yes, countless people do worship a god of their Imagination & not the God of the Bible. This happens as much among conservatives as among liberals, and among people of no political stripe at all. And, yes, Judgment is an integral, critical part of Christ’s message.

    The first thing, tho, that confuses me is the statement that true Christians celebrate the damnation of God’s enemies. How is celebration consistent with Ezekiel 18:32? Instead, I think true Christians will greet that day as Jesus greeted the news of Lazarus’ death: He wept.

    Second, there’s an implicit view here that somehow we know what is just and what is not, and that our justice is God’s justice. But the Bible says consistently that God’s justice is not man’s justice (Ezekiel 18:25). As Paul reminds us we can’t even comprehend God’s justice ( Romans 9:14-15). In man’s justice entrapment is illegal, but God hardened Pharaoh’s heart and then held him accountable. In man’s justice thieves get punished, but in God’s justice the thief who repented saw Heaven that very day.

    Third, while its God’s wrath which convicts sinners, the NT says that its God’s grace which saves sinners. The Bible is inherently balanced in this way and Amen for that.

    Finally, the idea that “a wrathless god shorn of His justice is no god worth worshipping” is both bold and worrisome. I had this very same discussion yesterday with a dear friend of mine. In fact, I said something similar to this, but after reflection I conceded that that was my fleshly self talking and not my spiritual self. In the parable of the Prodigal Son wasn’t it the older son’s complaint that the father didn’t show any wrath toward his younger brother? What would we think if the older son had said, “a wrathless father shorn of justice is no father worth obeying”? I’d meekly suggest that we don’t obey God because he is just, we obey God because He is the Creator of the universe. For that reason alone He is to be worshiped. As He said, “I Am that I Am”; in this sense Wrath, or even Grace, doesn’t matter.

    • Lauren Bertrand July 30, 2013 at 11:10 pm #

      Excellent observations Chris. Neither conservative nor liberal Christians, nor atheists, are more or less guilty of shaping God to coincide with our own code of ethics, which are always more entrenched than our religion. We ALL gravitate toward churches–or other institutions–that parrot what we already believe is “the right way” to interpret Scripture. It is for this reason that I have always thought “War & Peace” is a more illuminating look at the world than the Bible, because Tolstoy–was he an atheist or a deist?–understood that everything is filtered through our subjective interpretations, including the biases that he inadvertently infused into his own writing.

    • Denny Burk July 31, 2013 at 2:48 pm #

      Chris, I answer your objections in the message. If you get a chance, I would love to hear you interact with it.

  4. Terry Galloway July 30, 2013 at 10:36 pm #

    You are totally right. In the watered down, cheap grace, easy believism and antinomian circles today they claim John 3:16 alone while ignoring that we must be born again and John 3:36. Those who don’t obey remain under Gid’s wrath.

  5. James Bradshaw July 30, 2013 at 10:56 pm #

    ” I make the case that every true Christian will one day lift up his voice in celebration when God bares His arm in judgment against His enemies”

    And if that “enemy” is the mother who raised you, nursed you, made your school lunches, sacrificed her own good so you could have a better life … then what?

    You’re going to shout with joy when God “makes her blood spray” across His white robes (as Jonathan Edwards so charmingly preached) because she had the wrong beliefs in her mind … or because she divorced for “the wrong reasons” or any multitude of things that make one God’s enemy?

    To me, these are the sentiments of a sociopath, not a saint. I retract that. Even Jeffrey Dahmer had the natural sense of empathy to not kill and eat his own.

    • Josh Brown July 30, 2013 at 11:34 pm #

      James, your problem is not with Denny and other Christians who, not only believe God will unleash his wrath against unrepentant sinners, but also believe the saints will one day praise God for his holy justice. Your problem is with God and his Word. “After this I heard what seemed to be the loud voice of a great multitude in heaven, crying out, ‘Hallelujah! Salvation and glory and power belong to our God, for his judgments are true and just; for he has judged the great prostitute who corrupted the earth with her immorality, and he has avenged on her the blood of his servants.’ Once more they cried out, ‘Hallelujah! The smoke from her goes up forever.'” Revelation 19:1-3

      • Hannah Lewis July 30, 2013 at 11:51 pm #

        I’m going to side with James on this one. “People against sociopathic gods society” 😉 We’ll make jackets.
        James, I haven’t laughed that hard in a while. Your way with words is amazing… 🙂

    • Denny Burk July 31, 2013 at 2:49 pm #

      James, I address your objection in the sermon. I’d love to hear your interaction with it.

  6. James Bradshaw July 30, 2013 at 11:04 pm #

    “When wrath is taken away, so is the gospel. And that is why this discussion matters.”

    I’m not Orthodox, but it rings true:

    http://www.orthodoxpress.org/parish/river_of_fire.htm

  7. Hannah Lewis July 30, 2013 at 11:42 pm #

    “Your ability to rejoice in God’s wrath will one day define whether or not you know Him at all.” I hope NEVER to rejoice in God’s wrath. I don’t even believe God does. That’s sick and twisted, frankly. Remember God is slow to anger and abounding in love, and desires that none should perish.

    The wrath of God be what it may, (I’m a hopeful universalist myself! *wink*) it’s His love that saved me. As someone who nearly became an atheist and nearly killed herself at one point in her life, I will repeat: *saved* me. My life, my soul, all of it. It’s his love that gives me life and gives me hope and joy. That’s why I doubtless overemphasize His love so much. I want others to know it too. I want to show it to others. His wrath and judgement and anger and all those other things, while I don’t deny or exclude them, (I understand their theological importance and they have their place) but they’re just not that important to me. Those things didn’t save me, they didn’t draw me to Christ. And they certainly don’t overshadow His love. They’re not even equal to His love. I believe God is, above all, Love, he is not just loving or shows love, he IS love. If God wasn’t so amazingly, wonderfully, beautifully loving the way He is, if He was mostly anger, or begrudgingly loving, or delightfully wrathful, etc, I couldn’t love Him. I wouldn’t.
    I don’t follow or love God because He’s the God of the universe. God of the universe He may well be but that doesn’t mean I have to follow Him. It definitely doesn’t give me reason enough to love Him. He could be God of the universe, yet also be a tyrant or a monster. It’s because He’s Love like nothing else on this earth, and loves ME of all things, that I follow Him and love Him back. It’s His love that matters to me. It’s His merciful, kind, gentle, and unconditional love that motivates me and that I want to show others. Not his wrath or anger or whatever else. So do what you want with his wrath and anger, it’s His love that is foremost to *me* and I will always lead with His love in my dealings with others. His kindness leads us to repentance and people will know we are His by our love. I hope to reflect that in my life. Christ loved radically and unashamedly and I hope to do so too. I’m not very good at it, I readily admit (what? I was raised Southern Baptist *big wink*) but I’m learning, and I try.
    The love of God overshadows everything. Disagree with me if you want, but if I make too much of God’s love, it’s because it’s such a huge deal to me. It saved me and keeps me going. It’s everything. I hope to never stop making too big of a deal about God’s love. If that bothers other people, that’s ok with me. 🙂 There will always be plenty of other people ready to talk at length about wrath and hell and judgement. I will always talk first and foremost about God’s love, and I hope to show it with my life, first and foremost. That is the most important thing to me, and as I see it, to the world. And if in the end, my fault is that I focused too much on God’s love and drew the circle of inclusion in that love too large, then that’s a risk I’m very happily willing to take.
    And that’s my story anyway, and I’m sticking to it. (*draws bulls-eye on chest and passes out rocks*) Have at it. 😉

    • Ken Abbott July 31, 2013 at 1:33 pm #

      Hannah, God is also holy (Isaiah 6, 1 Peter 1, Revelation 4, etc), the only one of his attributes elevated to the third degree (holy, holy, holy) in Scripture. What implication for us does this have?

    • Chris Ryan July 31, 2013 at 5:49 pm #

      That’s a very inspiring message Hannah, thanks for sharing.

  8. Bob Heather July 31, 2013 at 6:33 am #

    Hannah, what did God’s love save you from?

  9. Brett Cody July 31, 2013 at 8:43 am #

    This is an interesting article on the subject:
    http://www.firstthings.com/onthesquare/2013/07/no-squishy-love

  10. Brent Walker July 31, 2013 at 1:20 pm #

    I posted this question on the original post as well, but I am afraid it will get lost in the mix and no answered: “The Celebrating Grace Hymnal uses the line change, so I wonder why the PCUSA was not allowed. Does anyone have any insight on this? I’m glad the Gettys stuck up for the original lyrics in this case, but they either allowed the change before or The Celebrating Grace Hymnal changed the words without their permission.”

  11. Stephen Hale July 31, 2013 at 2:17 pm #

    Amen Denny.

  12. James Bradshaw July 31, 2013 at 5:31 pm #

    Josh writes: “God will unleash his wrath against unrepentant sinners, but also believe the saints will one day praise God for his holy justice”

    So if your mother were thrown into Hell, you’d sing a song. What if God decided to throw YOU in Hell for no other reason than He can and to show His “glory”? Would you praise Him then as you find yourself being thrown head first into the everlasting Lake of Fire?

    If not (and if you were to say “yes”, that would make you either the world’s greatest masochist or just a liar), then I stand by my assessment.

    • Ken Abbott August 1, 2013 at 9:45 am #

      Mr. Bradshaw: You ask, “What if God decided to throw YOU in Hell for *no other reason* than He can and to show His ‘glory'” (emphasis mine).

      Freely acknowledging that the ways of God are mysterious and his thoughts beyond our thoughts, I suggest that it is illegitimate to attribute arbitrariness to God when we have not been included in the totality of his counsels. Consider God in the whole of his revealed being. We must not forget that the God who is all-holy is also perfectly just and good. All of God is in harmony with himself. That a human is condemned to hell at all is based upon absolute justice. The Judge of all the earth shall do right.

      “Would you praise Him then as you find yourself being thrown head first into the everlasting Lake of Fire?” I am not sure that the damned are predisposed to praise God for anything, but I am reminded of Paul’s stated desire–echoing that of Moses–that he could wish himself cursed and cut off from Christ if it meant that his fellow Jews would be saved–the same Paul who had just finished speaking one of the greatest doxologies recorded in all Scripture extolling the love of God in Christ.

      • Stephen Hale August 1, 2013 at 4:22 pm #

        This might sound like dime novel theology, but what if God during the eternity that He dwelt in was aware of His own absolutely perfect free will but according to that black box of His absolute foreknowledge, like some of our scenario running weather computers, ran every entity He desired to create under every possible scenario in His repertoire, discovered that in time, even if a billion years or so, every created entity considered would press the envelope of his free will and fail.
        I’m developing my thoughts from Romans 9:27-29 talking of an expected failing if God does not make some effort, and that He desired His work to end in righteousness, even if He must cut short in His decree of Creation the time of that Creation. It did not hurt that we conveniently are in a time when computers are being made that do scenarios given an input of information, and surely this is our shadow as being in the image of God that great black box God has concerning foreknowledge and His counsel of what He desires to do. Somewhere, since I am not God, my analogy must fail, but you smarter ones can pick it apart.
        Knowing that His Creation cannot sustain an absolute free will in His creatures and since free will tests do not demand a sacrifice, but garbage picking does, God determined that He would make Himself a Sacrifice and interfere in that required to save some of His creation, and being the Sacrifice, JHVH’s free will would prevail over that of His creatures.
        Building His decree upon a concept of precedents, God searched His black box for that entity that would fail the fastest under whatever range of Creation scenarios He desired. He chose for the angelic part that of Lucifer and placed him in the very exalted position that Lucifer would assert his free will in doubting even the possible Creator-hood of God, and why God would say He created Him perfect until iniquity was found in Him, and in another post I might speculate what that would be.
        For man he chose Adam/Eve where Eve would immediately fail under deception, and Adam would fail in an assertive act of following up on Eve’s disobedience. God by then had place in His Decree the Law of Like begets Like, and so as to shorten the time to bring in the balance of the entities that will exist, they came into the world as if they had already fallen, being the children of the fallen pair that had absolute free will as far as creatures were concerned. The free will of mankind since has been defective, and without the help of God in matters of the remedy of salvation, only involved in how they order their lives on earth whether as fools reaping vengeance or as saints building up a treasure of reward.
        In that God treasured the value of Himself being a sacrifice He would remain jealous against anything that mankind would proffer to obtain the favor that could win as merit a mercy which in God’s view is absolutely within HIS purview alone. There would be no bargaining here…period.
        Truly, all men have failed, in that they failed before in God’s Black Box, but desiring to have a Creation anyway, and end according to His specifications, ending in righteousness and not a dismal failure were Creation to run its course and men allowed to fail in his own time and circumstance of pushing the envelope, God allowed this fast track but even holding in reservation, so no man or angel could ever quibble during the judgment, the possibility of an extended time were the Creatures could ever, against the knowledge of God (HAH), in their free will whatever that was worth in its defective state, could do that meriting an extension. Adam could have broken free from God’s anticipation of a fast fall and lingered for millions of years. Man could have broken through to the tree of life and lingered in sin for nearly an eternity. The evil generation that Jesus referred to of His Jewish peers which would NOT get a sign FROM HEAVEN but that of Jonah and his three days and nights in the fish as “this generation” would upon a surprising acceptation instead of rejection of Jesus, became the “this generation” of Matthew 24 which WILL see signs from Heaven. The Preterists never can never get how ironic it was for Jesus to say “this generation” when all human reasoning demands it to be called “that generation,” unless God HAD put it in His plan to react to a surprising turn of attitude against that which He foreknew, but so far, God has batted a thousand in seeing His expectations fulfilled. At the judgment of the evil dead, there will no quibble prevail against the Will of God in choosing or failing to choose whatever of His creation God in His absolute Free will that must stand those He Garbage Picked to love and receive His absolute mercy, and the WRATH of God that would have been meted out on us all if His Creation would have endured till every last Creature opted out of obedience to the Creator, were God minded to allow no cutting short of a decree of Creation that He cut out of eternity. As a creature, I bow to God’s will and give praise to Him who would give mercy at His expense, and will NEVER claim a sovereignty of my own will that if it was not for my will, even God would not be able to save me. I appreciate His interference in my will, when He drew me to Christ, and Christ in receiving me announce that I would be saved.

  13. Brett Cody August 1, 2013 at 8:40 am #

    Brent,
    One of my professors is friends with the Getty’s and has told me that Keith Getty has found congregations singing “In Christ Alone” with the ‘wrath of God’ line changed. I am basing my assumption here on second hand knowledge, but from my understanding there are some who have changed the line without Keith’s permission. I do respect the PCUSA for asking, but I respect Getty and Townend for holding their ground on this. Wasn’t it Martin Luther who claimed if he could write our hymns he could indoctrinate our children?

    • Brent Walker August 1, 2013 at 2:09 pm #

      Interesting. I’m not familiar with copy write law, but I would think something as formal as a printed hymnal like The Celebrating Grace Hymnal would need permission in order to change the lyrics. This is the first I have heard of someone changing a line to In Christ Alone, so I checked my hymnals and found the change in that particular hymnal, but not in others that it’s in.

  14. Terry Galloway August 1, 2013 at 4:18 pm #

    Denny, I am so glad that you brought up this point which is missing from the gospel message today. Your conclusions are right on. I frequently think of the classic book by J I Packer called Knowing God. Yes, God is love and wrath, goodness and severity. Just like Jesus was fully God and man at the same time. Jesus talked about hell more than heaven.

    I noticed that your web site has the Gospel Coaliition link. My pastor is Crawford Loritts who serves on the group. He preached last week on Matthew 7 about the broad way leading to destruction and the narrow way being the only way acceptable to God. Denny, continue to have courage to preach the truth. It is only by God’s grace that any of us find the narrow way, but wrath is still in his character which is what is so amazing about grace. Crawford also preached about costly grace!

    In the seeker churches which I used to be a member of a prominent Atlanta one, Acts 5 is skipped because in the New Testament, God exercised his wrath against two people IN the church for one lie. He didn’t tolerate a deliberate lie with Ananias and Sephira who claimed to be believers. People want to ignore the full character of God. Yes, He is holy, holy, holy.

  15. James Bradshaw August 1, 2013 at 5:04 pm #

    Ken writes: “That a human is condemned to hell at all is based upon absolute justice. The Judge of all the earth shall do right.”

    How do you define “just” and “right”? If our definitions of these words have no relation to how God manifests these attributes, then you’ve succeeded in saying nothing at all. You may as well make up your own word to describe Him.

    Is it “right” to create sentient beings for no other reason than to display your ability to torture them forever (as Calvinism asserts)? Is it “just” to create a system whereby humans are cursed and held in some ways accountable for the actions of their long dead ancestors? If “yes”, then I’m not sure how you’d possibly define an “unjust” action on the part of God (or any god). You’ve left no room for any such possibility (although if you can provide an example, I’d be intrigued).

  16. Tim Keene August 1, 2013 at 5:23 pm #

    If I have understood the quotation from Timothy George correctly, the objection of PCUSA was to the line “Till on that cross as Jesus died/the wrath of God was satisfied.” as a whole rather than simply to the notion of the wrath of God. Although I adhere to the notion of God’s wrath being satisfied in the sacrifice by Christ it is one difficult to pin down in the NT. The notion of satisfaction seems to come from Medieval theology rather than the Bible. Moreover if one is unwary, one can present an almost bi-theistic theology in which we are saved from the wrathful father by the loving son when in all things the two (not to mention the Holy Spirit) work together.

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