4. God’s Wrath Humbles Us before Him
25“Yet you say, ‘The way of the Lord is not just.’ Hear now, O house of Israel: Is my way not just? Is it not your ways that are not just? 26When a righteous person turns away from his righteousness and does injustice, he shall die for it; for the injustice that he has done he shall die. 27Again, when a wicked person turns away from the wickedness he has committed and does what is just and right, he shall save his life. 28Because he considered and turned away from all the transgressions that he had committed, he shall surely live; he shall not die. 29Yet the house of Israel says, ‘The way of the Lord is not just.’ O house of Israel, are my ways not just? Is it not your ways that are not just?
– Ezekiel 18:27-29 (ESV)
God’s wrath culminating in Hell demonstrates to us the fullness of His mercy shown on the Cross and guarantees the perfection of justice. Yet we all probably remain unsettled by the idea of Hell. It seems to me that the only explanation for this is that I—that we—don’t fully understand the weight of sin. We think that Hell is too severe, to harsh. It does seem like an act of justice in which we can rejoice, as we would in a harsh prison sentence against a child molester.
If Hell is the punishment God’s justice demands and yet is seems so unjust, it is ultimately a doctrine that ought to humble man. We cry out at the thought of Hell, “Injustice!” Yet, by what standard to we make such a judgment? Who are we, mere humans beings, to adduce the appropriate punishment deserving a personal transgression against the infinitely holy and glorious Creator of the world? Our crimes are a personal affront against God—idolatrous rebellion—and a deliberate breaking of His eternal law, of His character. Our sins are contrary to the very being of God.
Hell shows us just how weighty our sin really is. Our response cannot be to cry out “injustice,” for we the creatures have no right to decide what is just when it comes to transgressions against our Holy God. Only He can do that. On His reckoning, only Hell or the Cross befits crimes such as ours. When we question the fairness of Hell, we must humble ourselves before God and acknowledge that we are mere men. We should really ask ourselves: do we understand the weight of sin? The response of a heart truly humbled before God is praise, praise even in His incomprehensibility:
33 Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!… 36 For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen. (Rom. 11:33-36)
5. God’s Wrath Is a Means of our Salvation
2Oh YHWH, I have heard your report;
I fear, oh YHWH, this deed of yours.
In the midst of years, give it life;
in the midst of years, make it known;
but in anger, remember to show mercy.
– Habakkuk 3:2
So far we have considered the wrath of God as it concerns final judgment, as it concerns the future. But is their joy to be found in God’s wrath as it concerns the present? I am convinced there is. According to the Bible, God’s wrath is the means of our salvation. This is true in two senses.
First, all salvation is accompanied by wrath: the salvation of the believing people of God is always accompanied by the wrath of God against those in rebellion. In the Exodus, God’s delivery of Israel was simultaneously judgment on Egypt and its so-called “gods” (e.g., Ex. 15).
The conquest was simultaneously peace for God’s people and wrath against the sins of the Canaanites (Gen. 15:16). The Babylonian invasion of Judah was simultaneously judgment on the wicked house of Judah (Hab. 1:1-11; 3:13-14) and salvation for the righteous (Hab. 1:1-4; 2:3-4; 3:13, 19).
And the Cross was the decisive defeat of Sin and Death, and judgment against human sin—wrath poured out on the Son of God—so that God’s people might be redeemed. Thus, all salvation has been simultaneously an act of God’s love and His wrath and justice. These different aspects of God’s character are, therefore, not contradictory but complimentary.
God’s wrath and justice and intermingled with and accompany His love and mercy. Wrath and justice demonstrate the graciousness of grace while love and mercy manifest the severity of sin and the weight of God’s justice.
Second, God’s acts of wrath are against the enemies of His people, in order to bring them victory, peace, and endurance. In the Old Testament, this warfare was mainly physical. For example, God delivered His people from slavery to Sin in Egypt. God delivered His people from the harsh oppression of their unrighteous brothers (Hab. 1:1-4). And God granted His people peace in the land of Israel by driving out the lands sinful occupants (Gen. 15:16).
In the New Testament, God is not presently waging earthly warfare for His people. He is, however, engaged in Spiritual warfare. Our enemies are no longer the nations around us but the spiritual forces of darkness. Though the enemies are different, our hope for victory is the strength of God that brought victory to Israel against their fleshly enemies (Eph. 6:10-20, cf. Isa. 59:15-20). We rejoice in God’s wrath because by His strength accompanying us, we each have the firm hope of enduring to the final day and succeeding in our mission to proclaim the Gospel of God to the world (Phil. 2:12; Col. 1:10-11; 1 Pet. 1:4-5).
God has withheld wrath for millennia in order that those in rebellion against Him might be led to repentance. This is glorious truth of Scripture. God is patient. God is merciful. There is great joy to be found in His merciful act of restraining sin (cf. 2 Pet. 3:9). Yet God’s wrath will fall on those who have not responded to His gracious provision of salvation. God provided His only Son on a cross to redeem sinful man from their sins. Those who reject this good news, who presume upon the riches of God’s kindness and do not see that His kindness is meant to lead to repentance, are storing up wrath of themselves “on the day of wrath when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed” (Rom. 2:4-5).
Christians are not, however, only to rejoice in the present age of mercy but also in that final day of judgment. Christians are to look to the day of the wrath of God and its culmination as Hell not as something to escape but as an integral part of God’s plan of redemption. It is only in final judgment that we will truly comprehend the weight of the Cross and see justice perfected. Furthermore, God is working through His people for judgment and salvation, guaranteeing our success in this work and our endurance in this life by the same power that worked judgment in the Old Testament. In these things we can and we should rejoice.