Interestingly, the answer to this question is often presented as an absolute yes or an absolute no. If you answered with an absolute no then congratulations for being an antinomian (google it, somewhat to my own surprise I spelt this right first attempt), you're also wrong. And if you answered with an absolute yes then you're probably a Catholic or legalist and likewise wrong. The answer to the question is probably best summed up as a qualified yes (or even a qualified no but I think I prefer the emphasis on the doing of good). It requires a nuanced understanding of salvation and if you're wondering what on earth I'm going on about, please stay with me, at least until I've gone through the arguments.
Of course, one of the cornerstone principles of the Christian faith is salvation through faith alone. Happily, I'm not denying this. But salvation is much broader than we often conceive it to be. Let's spilt salvation into its parts then, sorry if you are put off with the '-ations' but it's good to learn the theological terms involved.
_ Human Rights stem directly from Christian thought – it is easy to explain why every human being has certain rights if we hold that every human being is made in God’s image. Secular attempts to justify human rights have a much harder time. But this post isn’t about human rights in the normal way we understand it to mean: the rights of a man in relation to other men. Instead, this post is about the rights of men before God and the fact that we have none.
As facts go this one in particular we hate and the extent to which we hate it is reflected by the extent to which we fail to grasp the nature of God and the nature of man. At heart, we all like to think that God is pretty equal to us and that we can relate to him much as though it were a relationship of equals. To be told that we don’t have a single right before God, even to life, goes against our grain and usually diminishes our view of God. ‘Well,’ we huff ‘If God does not value my rights as a human being then he obviously isn’t a very good God and I’m not going to value him.’
The Arab Spring, the Euro-crisis, the US debt problem, the European debt problem, the terrorist attack in Norway, the riots in England, the world seems increasingly instable of late. All that was thought certain and secure is being rendered worthless. We built our lives on the ‘certainty’ of economic growth, on the ‘security’ of our house prices but the god of money now lies in ruin. Who would have expected a year ago that Norway would have been the victim of terror? But one of the countries with the highest Human Development Index rating is now no stranger to the evil of terrorism. Riots happen in Greece, Spain or France, in foreign places, not London, not in our own backyard, so we thought. The US was unassailable in its economic position; it would never lose its credit rating, this we knew for sure.
But no, in the last six months much or we thought or wanted to think is now revealed to be wrong. Greed, hatred, looting, corruption, lying, violence and sexual immorality have come to light in every circle of society. Those in power, those not in power, we see that all are guilty of evil. This should be a profoundly humbling experience for us as we watch the world around us. It has not been.
“Then I saw a great white throne and him who was seated on it. The earth and the heavens fled from his presence, and there was no place for them. And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Another book was opened, which is the book of life. The dead were judged according to what they had done as recorded in the books. The sea gave up the dead that were in it, and death and Hades gave up the dead that were in them, and each person was judged according to what they had done. Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. The lake of fire is the second death. Anyone whose name was not found written in the book of life was thrown into the lake of fire.”
Revelation 20 v 11 – 15
When you face God on the Day of Judgement what are you going to say to him? What defence will you use to justify yourself before him? What line will you take? What angle will you go for? Maybe you’ll excuse yourself by saying that you never believed in God. But standing before him saying that is going to sound a little pathetic. Maybe you’ll try and point to all the good deeds you have done and how you are too good a person to go to Hell. But when faced with absolute, perfect and infinite holiness of God you’re deeds are going to be thrown into sharp relief.
“Behold therefore the goodness and severity of God: on them which fell, severity; but toward thee, goodness, if thou continue in [his] goodness: otherwise thou also shalt be cut off.”
Romans 11 v 22 (King James version)
I have to admit that this is one of my favourite biblical ‘catchphrases’. Whenever I say to myself I imagine a deep resonating voice booming out over all the land: “BEHOLD THE GOODNESS AND SEVERITY OF GOD” Something like that.
The phrase neatly encapsulates one of the more common errors a Christian can make. Namely that we exaggerate either the goodness of God or his severity. In its worse forms solely focusing on the goodness of God leads to a doing away with hell, universalism (everyone will be saved) and a neglecting of God’s wrath. And solely focusing on the severity of God can often present him in the words of Dawkins as a “a petty, capriciously malevolent bully”
Neither is true. Both are making God to be in man’s image rather man in God’s image. Both views assign human imperfections to a perfect God. As such, I figured it would be profitable to consider them both and doing as Paul commands behold the goodness and severity of God.
“While the Israelites were in the desert, a man was found gathering wood on the Sabbath day. Those who found him gathering wood brought him to Moses and Aaron and the whole assembly, and they kept him in custody, because it was not clear what should be done to him. Then the LORD said to Moses, "The man must die. The whole assembly must stone him outside the camp." So the assembly took him outside the camp and stoned him to death, as the LORD commanded Moses”
Numbers 15 v 32 – 36
For many of you reading that, both non Christian and Christian, you were probably shocked that a man be stoned to death just for breaking the Sabbath rule about not working. It’s unfair you say; how could God be so petty? Surely God should have forgiven him? Indeed by if that happened in a human justice system we would call it an over reaction.
Imagine doing a talk on Barak Obama and not mentioning the fact that’s he’s the president. Imagine talking about Winston Churchill without also talking about World War II. Even worse, imagine talking about Simon Cowell and not mentioning his television shows. Pretty stupid huh? In all three cases sure you’d get a picture of the character of the person but it wouldn’t be the full picture and in actual fact it would almost be insulting.
Yet when was the last time you heard a Christian talk about God’s anger or, as it’s better know, God’s wrath? When was the last time you heard a sermon on it? When was the last time you mentioned it? Somewhere over the last fifty years God’s wrath just dropped out of Christian teaching.
How monumentally stupid!
As A W. Pink pointed out the Bible has more references to God’s wrath in it than it has to God’s mercy and love. Open your Bible and you’ll barely be able to go two chapters before coming across an example or teaching on God’s wrath. The Bible is about God’s continued wrath against mankind. Read Isaiah, read Revelation, read about the Flood, read the history of the Israelites, read the Bible!
“The Lord is a jealous and avenging God
the Lord takes vengeance and is filled with wrath.
The Lord takes vengeance on his foes
and maintains his wrath against his enemies.”
Nahum 1 v 2 (read the rest of the Chapter as well!)
Or as Jesus talked about Jerusalem’s destruction:
“How dreadful will it be in those days for pregnant women and nursing mothers! There will be great distress in the land and wrath against this people.”
Luke 21 v 22 – 24
Or Romans 1 v 18
“The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness.”
(Notice the present tense of ‘is being’. God’s wrath is still being revealed today!)
Throughout the entire Bible God’s wrath crops up again and again and again and again and again. And we see it also in the wretched world we live in. Why then are Christians silent on the issue? When the Bible is so vocal about it why don’t we speak up? Could it be that we are ashamed of God? Could it be that we somehow think that wrath is unworthy of God?
To investigate God’s wrath let me first ask you a simple question: is God’s love still being preached? The answer is a clear YES God’s love is certainly not a neglected topic. But love is a dangerous emotion, responsible for as much as good, people can kill for love, they become jealous and bitter, they harm others and themselves through love. Does this affect God’s display of love? Of course not! God exhibits a perfect love, one free from all the sin of man’s love.
And in the same way God’s wrath has none of the human sinfulness! God’s wrath is a perfect, holy and righteous wrath because it couldn’t be anything else. God’s wrath isn’t the red faced anger as pictured above but a praiseworthy quality that we need to mediate on and learn about.
Hang on; doesn’t wrath imply a cruelty on God’s part?
No, for we must bear in mind two considerations: first is that God’s wrath is judicial. God is holy and burns with wrath against all that is unholy. His wrath is set against all sin; his wrath is our punishment for our sins. His wrath is completely and utterly what the human race deserves for its rebellion. There can be no excuse on our part. Anyone who has come under conviction of sin knows this to be true.
Secondly, God’s wrath is our choice! As Jesus says in John 3 v 18
“Whoever believers in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God’s one and only son.”
And a bit further on John the Baptist says about Jesus:
“Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God’s wrath remains on him.”
John 3 v 36
These verses make it crystal clear. We bring God’s wrath on ourselves! Our rejection of God leads to his wrath against us. All judgement from God is merely showing us the full consequences of our folly.
This is terrible!
Yes, God’s wrath is terrible. And we are called to realise this. It is too easy to make light of sin and pass it off as nothing. The more we dwell upon God’s wrath the more hideous our sin is revealed to be. After all, if sin really wasn’t that big a deal would God say this?
“Terror and pit and snare await you,
O people of the earth
Whoever flees at the sound of terror will fall into a pit
Whoever climbs out of the pit will be caught in a snare.
The floodgates of heaven are opened
The foundations of the earth shake
The earth is broken up
The earth is split asunder
The earth is thoroughly shaken”
Isaiah 24 v 17 – 19
God’s wrath is no laughing matter and it reveals his full abhorrence of our sin against him.
Is that it? Isn’t there anything more?
Yes! Wonderfully, gloriously, mercifully there is more. So much more!
“For the Lord longs to be gracious to you;
He rises to show you compassion
For the Lord is a God of justice
Blessed are all those that wait on him!”
Isaiah 30 v 18
God is wrath and yet God is also love and compassion. He longs to be gracious to us! And part of his compassion and love was what was said in John 3 v 16
“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”
We have hope! We have a way to be saved from God’s wrath. For why did Jesus have to die on the cross? To provide us with salvation from the wrath of God against sin. And what salvation did he bring!
“You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly…
For God demonstrated his own love for us in this: While we were still sinner Christ died for us.
Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God’s wrath through him!”
Romans 5 v 6, 8 – 9
While we were still sinners Christ died for us! And in his death he justified all who believe in him and through this we are saved from the wrath of God. What wonderful redemption!
The greater sense of God’s wrath we have the more majestic the truth of salvation is. The more terrible we realise God’s wrath to be the more abounding is God’s mercy and the more astounding is his grace. To deny or have too narrowed a view of God’s just wrath is insulting to Jesus’ need to die on the cross. To be able to praise God for his boundless love we need first appreciate and praise his boundless wrath.