|The cross needed: God's holiness and wrath
HIS GLORY REIGNS
Oct 15 2010 08:00
Nothing is more mysterious to modern men and women than why God takes sin so seriously. Forgiveness always seems
to be the simplest of matters to the sinner. In his eyes it consists of nothing more than God just turning a blind eye and
a deaf ear to sin. The sinner can never fathom why God does not just shrug off sin with a casual, 'Forget it.'
What seems so simple to mere men is anything but simple to God. If forgiveness of sin had been a simple matter, God
would never have driven Adam and Eve out of the garden of Eden, but would have allowed them to continue living
there. By evicting them, God gave overwhelming evidence of how serious a matter sin is.
After expelling Adam and Eve from the garden, Scripture says the Lord God stationed cherubim and a flaming sword at
the entrance to Eden (Genesis 3:24). This is not just the author's way of embellishing his story. In those cherubim and
in that sword we have the explanation for why God could not regard the sin of Adam and Eve as a trivial, light thing.
The cherubim are emblematic of the holy presence of God. We find images of them on the veil and the curtains in the
tabernacle, the forerunner of the temple, and then in the temple itself. We find them on the ark of the covenant. The
temple was of course, the place of God's presence, and the ark of the covenant was especially God's dwelling-place (I
The flaming sword must be understood in terms of the righteousness and justice of God that refuses to ignore or excuse
sin. It represents the determination of God to punish sin.
The cherubim and the flaming sword present us, then, with the reality of the holiness of God, and that holiness finds its
expression in his wrath against sin.
The mere mention of the wrath of God sparks several questions.
Why deal with the wrath of God?
It is considered to be in extremely poor taste even to suggest the wrath of God as a matter for serious consideration.
The only time a reference to 'hell' is considered to be appropriate is when it is used in profanity. Why, then, would
anyone ever dare to speak of the wrath of God in a serious way?
The reason for doing so is that it is in the Bible, and not just in an incidental or occasional way. This teaching is spread
evenly across the pages of Scripture. The apostle Paul had much to say about it (Romans 1:18-19; 2:5; 3:5; 4:15;
12:19; Ephesians 2:3; 5:6; I Thessalonians 5:9), but we are gravely mistaken if we think this doctrine was his invention.
We find it in the preaching of John the Baptist (Matthew 3:12). It is in the book of Hebrews (10:27; 12:25-29) and in the
writings of James (James 5:9) and of Simon Peter (I Peter 4:17-18; II Peter 2:4-9). It is in the tiny letter of Jude (Jude
12-15). We find it in the book of Revelation in massive doses (6:16-17; 11:18; 14:10,19; 15:1,7; 16:1,19; 19:15;
20:11-15; 21:8; 22:11,15). And yes, it is even in the preaching and teaching of the Lord Jesus Christ - very prominently
so (Matthew 7:13-14; 22:13-14; 23:33; 25:30,41,46; Mark 9:42-49; Luke 16:19-31; John 3:36).
Some respond to all this by saying, 'I believe in the God of John 3:16.' The wrath of God is there too! We find it right
there in the word 'perish' - God so love the world that he gave his Son so that sinners do not have to perish!
Thank God for the love that sent his Son, but that would have been a very foolish and unnecessary act if there had not
been some compelling reason behind it. There would have been absolutely no reason for his Son to come and die had
it not been for this dreadful reality of perishing.
What strange times we live in! We want to talk about the Lord Jesus coming to save us while insisting at the same time
that there is nothing to be saved from. But there is something to be saved from - it is the wrath of God! And only when
we see the terrifying thunderclouds of that wrath do we appreciate the beautiful rainbow of Calvary's love.
There is, then, a vast amount of biblical material on this subject, and no amount of public opinion polls will make it go
What is the wrath of God?
It is not, however, enough for us to know that the wrath of God is prominently taught in Scripture. We must know what
Scripture says about it. Just what is the wrath of God?
We know what the wrath of man is. Here is a fellow who comes home from work and his wife or children say or do
something that does not strike him quite the right way, and he blows up. He stamps his feet, shouts and belittles them.
He calls them names and, if he is an even more pathetic specimen of a man, he may actually strike them.
Is God's wrath like this? Not at all. The two types of wrath are entirely different. God's wrath is his settled indignation
against our sin. It is not a temporary, emotional outburst of uncontrolled anger. It is, in the words of John R. W. Stott,
'his holy hostility to evil, his refusal to condone it or come to terms with it, his just judgment upon it'. In another place
Stott says, 'Our anger tends to be a spasmodic outburst, aroused by pique and seeking revenge; God's is a continuous,
settled antagonism, aroused only by evil, and expressed in its condemnation.'
Why does God have wrath?
This drives us to raise yet another question: why does God have such a settled opposition to sin? Why cannot he just
ignore it? The cherubim and the flaming sword give us the answer. God's holiness means he cannot be ambivalent, or
neutral, about sin. His holiness not only means he must judge sin; it means he has a deep aversion to it. His wrath is
kindled against it. In other words, his holiness not only means he must do something about sin, but also that he wants to
do something about it. We are often compelled to take a certain course of action that we wish we did not have to take.
It is not so with God's action against sin. His very nature is opposed to it. His judgment against sin is, therefore, an
expression of his holy nature.
It makes just as much sense to talk about a square circle or a dark light as to talk about God tolerating evil or
compromising with it. Every fibre of his holy nature cries out for him to judge evil. His whole being pulsates with
indignation against it. One might as well ask the sun not to shine as ask God to ignore evil.
How is God's wrath expressed?
Another question that springs to our minds on this matter of the wrath of God may be stated in this way - how does God
express his wrath against sin?
In Romans 1:18 Paul indicates that there is a present, ongoing expression of God's wrath. He says it 'is revealed' from
heaven. How is God's wrath being revealed even now?
One way is through conscience. We know certain things are right and other things are wrong. Furthermore, we know
wrongdoing should be punished. While we object to the teaching of God's wrath, we cry out for it. Of course, we desire
it for others, not for ourselves, and yet all are guilty in the eyes of the holy God.
There are other indications of the present nature of God's wrath. When we see men and women paying a terrible price
for their sins in terms of their health, or their family, or their finances, we are seeing the wrath of God being expressed.
A sense of guilt over evil actions is likewise a current expression of God's wrath and, of course, death is another.
Many people would have us believe that God's wrath is completely exhausted by these expressions of it. It is not at all
uncommon to hear someone say, 'Our hell is in this life.' But the testimony of the Bible is that these expressions of
God's wrath are a warning of a final installment which Paul calls 'the wrath to come' (I Thessalonians 1:10).
The Bible uses an awesome array of terms to describe that final installment of wrath: hell, the lake of fire, eternal
destruction, darkness, weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth. We do not know the precise nature of this final
wrath, but we do know from such terms that it is a reality that is so terrible that it must be avoided at all costs. The
resounding cry of Scripture is that it can be avoided. The Lord Jesus Christ died on the cross for the express purpose
of delivering all who trust him from the wrath to come.
JOURNEY TO THE CROSS, by Roger Ellsworth, Copyright 1997, EVANGELICAL PRESS.
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