|The Gospel of Godís Grace #2
Why God Is Angry
September 14, 1997 / Romans 1:18-20
It is hard for the human mind to think about God; he is so big, and our capacity for understanding is so tiny. It is even harder to think correctly about God; we tend to reduce him to our image and likeness and judge him in light of our human sentiment. Paul says as much in these verses:
The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world Godís invisible qualities ó his eternal power and divine nature ó have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse (Rom. 1:18-20).
Paulís words sound strange to modern ears. We are accustomed to hearing that everyone is a "victim," thus no one is responsible. Paul wasnít buying that. He says that all of us are "without excuse" for our failure to know about Godís existence and attributes. According to the apostle, human beings are not the victims of ignorance about God or ignorance about right and wrong.
On July 4, 1994, a 13-year-old girl was clocked at 84 mph on a 40-mph stretch of U.S. 81 in Marlow, Oklahoma. A police officer gave chase with lights and siren on. The girl refused to stop, and other police vehicles joined the pursuit ó which lasted 50 minutes and extended into an adjoining state.
The high-speed chase ended tragically in Bowie, Texas. Police set up a roadblock on U.S. 81 to end the dangerous joyride of an unlicenced, underage driver. Cars chasing the girl stopped their pursuit in hopes she would slow down before reaching a blocked T-intersection with its flashing signal. Instead of stopping, the girl ran through the barrier at 87 mph. The vehicle went airborne, crashed into a car dealership, and she died after being thrown from it.
The father of the dead child filed a $5.8 million lawsuit against the City of Marlow and the police officers involved. He alleged that the police officers were negligent and forced his daughter into a crash! U.S. District Judge Wayne Alley ruled that the girl was responsible for her own death. "For the benefit of society as a whole," he wrote, "the best teaching for a teenager is: 'You must be prepared to take the consequences of your own conduct.' " That anyone should be expected to take the consequences of his or her decisions and choices is a bit novel these days, you must admit.
Judge Alley said the girl had "created the risk that ultimately led to her death." The same words could describe what many adults do our careers, marriages, and spiritual lives. And the same God who stands ready to redeem us from our sins is first angry about them. Yet it appears to be practically impossible for some to fathom this sort of anger in God.
Gospel: Its Backdrop of Bad News
Remember the spate of good news-bad news jokes that made the rounds several years ago? "Iíve got good news and bad news," said the commandant to the inmates at Stalag 12. "The good news is that everybody gets a change of underwear today." When the cheering stopped, he continued, "And the bad news is that #30735 changes with #64926, #58321 changes with #43392 . . ." That one is fairly typical of the whole lot. They were all pretty bad. But I am reminded of them by the good news-bad news motif with which Romans begins.
Paul has just announced the theme of this epistle: The gospel is "the power of God for the salvation of everyone," and in it "a righteousness (i.e., right-standing) from God is revealed." This is Paulís gospel, the good news of salvation. So why does he immediately launch into a discussion of the wrath of God that is also being revealed from heaven?
Go back to the first thing said in this lesson. It is hard to think about God, and it is even harder to think about him correctly. Nowhere is this more evident than in understanding the gospelís good news against the backdrop of its bad news. Yes, the very gospel that brings us the hope of right-standing with God makes it plain what befalls those who reject him. But try to think about it from Godís point of view. Maybe an analogy will help.
What would you think of a man who said he loved his wife but who didnít call 911 when she collapsed in the floor from a heart attack? What would you say about a woman who sobbed about the deaths of her two babies ó babies that she drowned? Or what about a wife who murdered her husband with a hunting knife and then came to you seeking sympathy because she is a widow now? "Thereís something fishy going on here!" youíd say. And youíd be right. If you truly love somebody, you donít hurt or neglect them. And you get angry when someone else tries to hurt them, donít you?
God is angry about sin and what it does to the people he loves. He cannot make peace with sin, and he will never get hardened to the damage it does to us. His anger over sin is part of his perfection.
Why do you think God says, "I hate divorce?" (Mal 2:16a). Or, "I hate a manís covering himself with violence?" (Mal. 2:16b). Could it have anything to do with the consequences that come of these behaviors? Have you ever known anyone to be hurt by a divorce? What about the innocent children whose lives are thrown into perpetual insecurity because of divorce? Then there are the terrible stories of violence by one human being against another for drugs or sex or thrills. God is angry about sin because of its awful effects in the lives of people he loves.
I think some people have the notion that God put the "Thou shalt nots" in the Ten Commandments just to take all the fun out of life. Really? Then explain how cursing and profanity enrich oneís life. Tell me how breaking promises makes the world a better place. Explain the benefit that comes to people by jealousy and greed ó and plotting to steal things from others. And I want to know the benefits that accrue from hating people whose race, color, language, or religion is different from yours. God hates these things because of the poison they inject into the stream of humankind.
You can mark it down as a certainty: Every commandment of God is related to his pursuit of our own good. Anything he orders us to do will bless us and enrich the lives of the people around us. Anything that he prohibits us from having or doing is something without which we will be better off. God is not playing games with us in his instructions and prohibitions. He is marking the path that leads to life and putting up warning signs where the pitfalls and land mines are.
Maybe it will help to think of it this way: God has established a basic framework within which all things must operate, and anyone who tries to defy that orderly design will bring down certain consequences on his head. In the physical universe, you just canít get by with opposing the law of gravity. Jump over a 700-foot cliff and shout "Everythingís all right so far," if you dare. But youíll eventually go splat! You donít "break" the law of gravity; you will only succeed in breaking yourself by defying it.
The same thing is true with the moral-spiritual universe. There are some universal principles about integrity, truth-telling, and respect for other people that govern human life and relationships. Violate them at your own risk. Jump over the moral cliff of adultery, lying, or racism if you will, but you will pay too high a price. Youíll go splat at some point ó and have nobody to blame but yourself for the catastrophe.
In order for God to be holy, he must hate sin with as much passion as he loves righteousness. He must despise lies with as much intensity as he loves truth. He must exhibit his wrath toward evil with as much intensity as he praises and rewards goodness. What would you think of me if I told you I love my wife but refused to try to protect her from harm?
Strange as it may seem to some, Paul could write of the fact that his preaching created the "smell of death" among those who were perishing through their rejection of it but spread the "fragrance of life" among those being saved (2 Cor. 2:14-16). Or one might recall that the Word of God is always like a double-edged sword (Heb. 4:12). In order to liberate sinís captives, it must be plunged into the belly of the enemy who is holding them in bondage. Thus the gospel reveals not only the happy results generated by "the obedience that comes from faith" (cf. Rom. 1:5) but also the horrible consequences of rejecting the gospel of Godís grace.
The goodness of the good news is in direct proportion to the badness that called it forth in the first place and which awaits those who reject it. What the gospel ultimately means to any one of us is determined by the response we make to it. To receive it by faith is to share a right-standing with him; to reject it in unbelief is to choose evil over good, wrong-standing over right-standing, hell over heaven. Seen this way, Godís wrath is every bit as holy and praiseworthy as his love. It is not arbitrary and capricious ó as human wrath sometimes is when an angry person gets out of control ó but is both rational and defensible.
The Divine Initiative
We humans know that wrathís anger and punishment are justified against certain evils. Most of us do not begrudge the Allied response to Adolf Hitlerís aggression and genocide. Most of the civilized world supported the war crimes trials at Nuremberg following World War II. And surely most of us believe it is right for a policeman to strop ó by deadly force, if necessary ó a murderer, rapist, or child molester who has been caught in his wicked deed.
Since our imperfect understanding of right and wrong demands at least the occasional exhibition of wrath against evil, it cannot be altogether inconceivable that a God who is perfect in holiness would be capable of wrath against wrongdoing and wrongdoers. In fact, for God not to be offended at the genuine wickedness in human experience would be to reveal that he is not perfect in his nature. To say it another way, for God not to respond with wrath against evil would be evil of him.
One could argue, however, that there would be no justice to Godís wrath against human sin if our evil behaviors were due to unavoidable ignorance of him and his will. Paul anticipates such an objection and responds to it. To the contrary, he insists, not one of us is ignorant of God and our basic duty to him. Godís existence and goodness have been "clearly seen" through creation. This much has been so clear, Paul writes, that anyone is "without excuse" for missing it.
Yes, even the heathen who has never heard the gospel or the name of Jesus is as responsible to God as you. He is not responsible for what you know that he has never heard, but he is responsible for the knowledge of God available to him in creation. The created world in which we live demands the conclusion of a world-maker, and God has put an innate sense of right and wrong within every human heart. At Romans 2:15, Paul will say this of the heathen: "They show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts now accusing, now even defending them."
No one will be rejected from the eternal fellowship of God for being born in the wrong part of the world or to parents in a non-Christian culture. Anyone who is lost will be lost because she deliberately rejects the truth about God and goodness available to her. The responsibility any one of us has to God is in direct proportion to our opportunity to know his will (cf. Luke 12:42-48). No one will be rejected because of ignorance or lack of opportunity to know God, for that would be unjust. But neither can you stand in the light, close your eyes, and curse God for self-created darkness. Then you would be without excuse and would have condemned yourself to divine wrath because of your own foolish choice.
You undoubtedly watched events unfold around the death of Diana, Princess of Wales. If you paid any attention to them at all, I suspect you noticed the remarkable contrast in levels of passion by what Great Britain calls its "Royal Family" and Dianaís family of origin.
Immediately after Diana died, her brother made a passionate statement on behalf of her family. Earl Spencer said he blamed her death on paparazzi who were chasing her when she was killed in a car wreck. He spoke of the owners and editors of the tabloids who paid for intrusive pictures of his sister and said there was "blood on their hands" over what had happened. Then, in his eulogy at her funeral, he was in some ways even bolder in venting his anger not only at the press but also at the House of Windsor for its perceived bad treatment of the princess.
Contrast with his perceptible anger the cold, aloof manner of the Queen of England toward all that had happened. Even that nationís press chided her. "Show Us You Care" was the headline that ran in The Express.
Please donít miss the point of my reference to Dianaís death. I have no side to take in the tension between two families. I donít know how to solve the problem of regulating a free press without doing damage to the publicís "right to know." And I certainly am not qualified to counsel a queen on the demands of royal protocol. I bring the matter up to make this point: Earl Spencerís anger bore eloquent testimony to the fact that he cared about the things that had happened, that he cared about his sister. If the queenís protocol or Prince Charlesí reserve hid their deep concern, it did so with such efficiency that a distressed public took their behavior as unconcern.
God cares deeply about you ó so deeply that he cannot be unmoved by the sin that is threatening to destroy you. He loves you and wants you to be saved. That is precisely why sin makes him angry and provokes his divine wrath. Knowing his attitude toward sin should fix our own. And in the knowledge of Godís wrath to be revealed against it is another invitation to hear and receive the gospel of his grace.
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