Church and state and God’s wrath

“Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer” (Romans 13:1-5).

Americans sometimes speak as if we invented the separation between church and state. That separation already exists in the Bible. Early Israel—under Moses, Joshua, and the judges, including Samuel—was a theocracy; God was ruler over Israel. But already in his farewell sermon (the book of Deuteronomy), Moses guided by the Holy Spirit anticipated the time when Israel would be ruled by a king. The ultimate king is, of course, Jesus, but the kings of Israel and Judah were pictures of Jesus, preparing the way for his coming as surely as priests and prophets prepared the way of the Lord.

Only Jesus is permitted to hold the two positions of priest and king. Saul and Uzziah were both punished by God when they attempted to do tasks assigned to the priests. Likewise in the New Testament, God’s work is done by church leaders and by human governments, but the work they do is carefully distinguished.

Church leaders proclaim the commands of God largely to diagnose sin, to call for repentance, and to offer forgiveness to sinners. Preachers must speak of the wrath of God, but they do not exercise the wrath of God. Human governments pass laws that regulate behavior to protect citizens from sinners. Governments enforce penalties for murder, robbery, false witness, and other sins, declaring them crimes against the state and punishing people convicted of such crimes.

When the church tries to punish sinners, it steps on the government’s feet. Aside from excluding obviously unrepentant sinners from the blessings of the church, Christian leaders can do little with churchly power to overturn evil in the world. We call upon Christians to do good works, to imitate Christ, but we do not convey God’s wrath when Christians fail. Instead, we continue to call for repentance and continue to promise forgiveness through the life and death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

When the government tries to forgive sinners, it steps on the church’s feet. Governors and Presidents have power to pardon criminals, but a governmental pardon is not forgiveness. Forgiveness comes from the cross of Christ through the work of the Church.

Christians have a dual citizenship. We are loyal to human government and take part in its actions. We also belong to the kingdom of God, and our first loyalty is to Jesus. When the government opposes God’s ways, we follow God’s ways, as Daniel did in Babylon and as Peter and John did in Jerusalem. But—even though Christians are called to reach out to their neighbors with the good news of forgiveness through Christ—it is right and not sinful for Christians to report a crime to the police. It is right and not sinful for Christians to testify truthfully in court about crimes they have witnessed. Christians may serve as police officers, jurors, judges, and even executioners. When these actions bring punishment to sinners, the wrath of God is being exercised. The final wrath of God will be expressed on the Day of the Lord, but his wrath works through human government today to limit sin and evil in the world and to protect all people from sin and evil.

Faith in Christ spares sinners from the wrath of God on the Day of the Lord. Faith in Christ does not spare sinners from the wrath of God exercised by human government. Prison officials do not witness to prisoners, but they permit Christians to enter the prisons and witness to prisoners. If a criminal comes to faith in prison, that criminal is a forgiven sinner spared God’s wrath on the Last Day, but that prisoner must continue to serve his or her sentence in the world under the authority of human government.

Human governments consist of sinful humans. They sometimes make mistakes and do what is wrong. In a democracy, Christians are free to vote for the leaders they expect to make the fewest mistakes. They are free to send messages to their leaders, advising them to do what those Christians, informed by the Bible, believe to be right for the government to do. Christians even have freedom to gather together and protest wrong decisions made by the government. Christians remain subject to human government, which represents the authority of God. We owe our leaders honor and respect, even when we feel that they are mistaken—even sinful—in what they say and do.

Church leaders describe the wrath of God to warn sinners of the coming Day of the Lord, the punishment that will be dealt to sinners. But we do so to call for repentance. Rather than constantly preaching fire and brimstone and the wrath of God, Christians should be known for pointing to the cross, showing how Christ consumed the wrath of God to spare us the punishment we deserve. Christian leaders should be known for proclaiming the love and mercy and grace of God, not only his wrath.

Church leaders often call believers to discipleship or to holiness. We remind people why we were made—to love God and to love our neighbors—and we encourage one another to do good works. But the commandments of God do not cause sinners to do good works. The commandments do not create discipleship or holiness. The commandments describe what Christians should do, but the forgiveness of God gives Christians power to do good things. The commandments describe the perfection of Jesus, but the forgiveness of God transforms us into the image of Christ, changing sinners into saints. Knowledge of the wrath of God does not, by itself, redeem sinners; knowledge of the wrath of God moves sinners to repentance, opening their minds and hearts to hear and believe the good news of redemption through Christ.

In this way the Bible distinguishes between the functions of God’s wrath under human governments and in the Christian Church. J.

The cup of wrath

God’s eternal and unchanging nature is love. In love he responds to sin and evil with anger; but in love he also finds a way to rescue sinners from his anger. On the cross, Christ faced the wrath of God, consuming it fully so no wrath is left for sinners who trust in Christ.

Before going to the cross, Christ prayed, “Let this cup pass from me” (Matthew 26:39). He prayed about the cup of God’s wrath, which is described by the Old Testament prophets: “Wake yourself, wake yourself, stand up, O Jerusalem, you who have drunk from the hand of the Lord the cup of his wrath, who have drunk to the dregs the bowl, the cup of staggering” (Isaiah 51:17); “Thus the Lord, the God of Israel, said to me, ‘Take from my hand this cup of wine of wrath, and make all the nations to whom I send you drink it” (Jeremiah 25:15); to Judah, God says, “You have gone the way of your sister; therefore I will give her cup into your hand. Thus says the Lord God: You shall drink your sister’s cup that is deep and large; you shall be laughed at and held in derision, for it contains much; you will be filled with drunkenness and sorrow. A cup of horror and desolation, the cup of your sister Samaria, you shall drink it and drain it out, and gnaw its shards and tear your breasts; for I have spoken, declares the Lord God” (Ezekiel 23:32-34). Imagine in heaven a cup with your name written on it. Every time you sin, a drop of poison falls into that cup, the poison of the wrath of God. For every lie, another drop of poison. For every careless deed that causes harm, another drop of poison. For every neglected opportunity to help a neighbor, another drop of poison. Imagine that cup of God’s wrath waiting for you when the Day of the Lord comes, the Day when all sinners will be judged.

But now that cup is empty. Jesus took your cup and drank all that it contained. In exchange, he gives you his cup, the cup of salvation (Psalm 116:13; I Corinthians 11:25-26). As in a comic movie, one cup is poisoned and the other is pure; but Jesus purposely takes the poisoned cup and gives to you and me the cup that is pure.

For this reason, Christians do not fear the wrath of God. Nor are we terrified of the Day of the Lord. Because Jesus drank the cup of wrath and gave us the cup of salvation, we are confident that we belong to the Lord and will dwell in his kingdom forever. The wrath of God is real; but Christians will never face that wrath. It was consumed and finished on the cross, granting us forgiveness, salvation, and eternal life.

No one can teach the whole message of Scripture without speaking of the wrath of God. God’s commandments (his Law) show us why we deserve his wrath; God’s promises (his Gospel) show us how we are spared his wrath through the saving work of Christ. God is love, which is why Christ provided an atoning sacrifice to save us from God’s wrath. No Christian should seek to be a wrath-monger; we should always delight to share the grace of God with sinners. The purpose of teaching the Law is to show our sins and our need for a Savior. This leads to repentance and the joy of sharing the Gospel, which shows us our Savior. The full message must be taught for sinners to come to repentance and faith and thus receive the Lord’s salvation. J.

The wrath of God

“For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth” (Romans 1:18).

About a month ago, my friend and fellow blogger InsanityBytes and I had a conversation at her place (See, there’s this thing called biology) about the wrath of God. IB was speaking against “Christian wrath-mongers,” those who emphasize the wrath of God to such an extent that they scarcely leave room for his love and mercy and forgiveness. In particular she has been disturbed by another blogger who persistently describes the cross of Christ in terms that smack of violence, hatred, and abuse. While I agree with her that the third blogger has badly misstated his description of our redemption at the cross, I also found it necessary to reply to her suggestion that the wrath of God is not real, that it does not exist.

Now, had IB said, “The wrath of God no longer exists for Christians because it was consumed at Christ’s sacrifice on the cross,” I would have joyfully agreed with her. To negate the wrath of God in its entirety is to drain the cross of its power. Granted, other descriptions of the cross still have power: that Christ paid the debt of sinners, that he offered a ransom to reclaim sinners from the enemy, that he fought the enemy (the devil, evil, sin, and death) and won. Any single description of redemption is incomplete. To remove God’s wrath from the equation, though, is not a valid option, since the Bible clearly teaches about God’s wrath.

I promised to study the Bible and report upon the wrath of God. I found that—depending upon which English translation of the Bible one uses—the word “wrath” appears roughly 200 times in the Bible. “Anger” and “angry” show up another 275 times, and “fury” is mentioned 70 times. The Hebrew and Greek words translated as wrath, anger, and fury are correctly translated; the various words all have the meaning of “anger, fury, indignation, ire, wrath.” While they are sometimes used to describe the anger and wrath of humans—and, in some cases, even warn against those qualities—by far the larger number of instances attribute wrath to God. Often that wrath is reserved for the Day of the Lord (Judgment Day), but frequently God’s wrath is a response to sin happening in the present world. Sin makes God angry.

When I sin, I hurt myself. When I sin, I harm my neighbor. When I sin, I damage God’s creation. When I sin, I defy God and declare independence, as if I could rule my own life. For all these reasons, God is right to be angry at sin.

Someone might counter that God’s nature is love, grace, mercy, and forgiveness—and God never changes; he is the same yesterday, today, and forever. All that is true. But God is also holy and good, and a holy and good God must respond to sin because of his love for all that he made. When my sin harms my neighbor, God is angry; when my neighbor’s sin harms me, God is angry. A holy God cannot let sin and evil go without atonement; evil must be countered and not merely ignored.

Because Christians are holy people, we also should be angry about sin. For a Christian to shrug and say, “Oh, well, another mass shooting; another child abducted; another fatal overdose; another person abused. There’s so many problems, it just doesn’t matter any more”—that would be cold hearted, unholy, and not like God. Sin should offend us. Evil should anger us. Like God, we should feel righteous wrath toward those who do wrong in this world.

But the Bible does warn Christians against anger and wrath. Wrath is included in lists of sins that God does not accept. Jesus equates anger—anger that causes us to shout insults—with murder. How do we reconcile these teachings with righteous wrath?

The Bible advises us, “Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and give no opportunity to the devil” (Ephesians 4:26-27). Anger can be a powerful temptation to sin. God cannot be tempted and never sins; his wrath is always righteous. Our wrath can push us into sin, which is why we need to handle wrath with care. When anger is selfish, when it comes from inconvenience to us and not from rejection of evil, such anger is sinful. Jesus calls that kind of anger murder. God’s wrath toward sin is never murderous anger; it is always holy, righteous, and just.

When the Israelites at Mount Sinai had Aaron build them a gold calf to worship, God was angry. “And the Lord said to Moses, ‘I have seen this people, and behold, it is a stiff-necked people. Now therefore let me alone, that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them, in order that I may make a great nation of you.’” (Exodus 32:9-10). Moses interceded for the people, and God relented from his wrath. The intercession of Moses is a picture of Christ’s intercession; what Moses did was only possible because of what Christ would do. “For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die—but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us. Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God” (Romans 5:6-9).

God’s eternal and unchanging nature is love. In love he responds to sin and evil with anger; but in love he also finds a way to rescue sinners from his anger. On the cross, Christ faced the wrath of God, consuming it fully so no wrath is left for sinners who trust in Christ.

(To be continued) J.