Late Summer Sermon Series
In our 2013 late Summer Series of sermons on the Old Testament book of the prophet Zechariah, my task was to start the series at the beginning of August with chapter 1 verses 1-6 where 1-3 say this:
(1) In the eighth month, in the second year of Darius, the word of the LORD came to the prophet Zechariah, the son of Berechiah, son of Iddo, saying, (2) The LORD was very angry with your fathers. (3) Therefore say to them, Thus declares the LORD of hosts: Return to me, says the LORD of hosts, and I will return to you, says the LORD of hosts.
My second of two opening points related to verse 2 and “Zechariah’s burning conviction”, namely that the Lord had been “very angry with your fathers.” I said the following [see sermon transcript, 11 August 2013]: “God was telling Zechariah that he was not just angry but ‘very’ angry.” Then to counter the belief that such ideas as God being angry are just Old Testament, I said: “Jesus teaches that God is love and loving … but he also teaches that God can be sometimes angry. In that great discourse of Jesus in John chapter 3 Jesus tells Nicodemus in verse 16: ‘For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.’ But then (20 verses later) in John 3 verse 36 he says: ‘Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him.’ However, God’s anger is not unreasonable like much human anger. Rather it is his judicial holy reaction to human wickedness and sinfulness. And this anger is spoken about throughout the New Testament. So Zechariah knew that our God is not a benign old man who turns a blind eye to all that is evil. No! He is a God capable of great and terrifying anger at evil. True, this is not the first thing Zechariah tells those depressed and dejected returnees. But it was a fundamental assumption behind all he taught. And it is a fundamental assumption behind, and included in, the gospel Christ taught.”
The Church Times report (9 August 2013 edition)
Literally just before going down to church for the morning services that Sunday, I picked up the Church Times and read the following headline: “‘The wrath of God was satisfied’ loses hymn its place in new book.” The report that followed said this: “The popular Evangelical hymn ‘in Christ alone’, which was sung at the Archbishop of Canterbury's enthronement service, has not been included in a new collection of hymns because it contains a line about the satisfaction of God's wrath. The hymn was considered by the Presbyterian Committee on Congregational Song (PCOCS) for inclusion in a hymnal that is due to be published this year by the Presbyterian Church of the United States (PCUSA), Glory to God.” We were then told that “in May, Mary Louise Bringle, the Chair of the PCOCS, said that the committee had initially voted for ‘In Christ alone’, by Keith Getty and Stuart Townend, to be included in the hymn book. It intended for the hymn to be published with the line, ‘Till on that cross as Jesus died the love of God was magnified.’” However, Mary Bringle wrote: “In the process of clearing copyrights for the hymnal we discovered that this version of the text would not be approved by the authors, as it was considered too great a departure from the original words: ‘as Jesus died “the wrath” of God was satisfied.’ We were faced, then, with a choice: to include the hymn with the authors’ original language or to remove it from our list.” In the event the PCOCS voted by 9 to 6 against including ‘In Christ alone’ in the hymnal with the original lyrics, “with deep regret over losing its otherwise poignant and powerful witness”. The majority view of the committee was that it did not wish “to perpetuate … the view that the cross is primarily about God’s need to assuage God’s anger”.
The Church Times then reminded us that “writing … in 2010, the then Precentor of Salisbury Cathedral, Canon Jeremy Davies, said that he found it ‘very difficult to sing’ the line about God's wrath being satisfied. ‘Are we really to believe that the angry God, propitiated by a blameless victim, is the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ?’” Next the Church Times mentioned Tom Wright. “Writing on the Fulcrum website in 2007 … the former Bishop of Durham, recommended that the line be changed to ‘Till on the cross as Jesus died the love of God was satisfied.’ There was a danger, he argued, of people presenting ‘over simple stories with an angry God and a loving Jesus, with a God who demands blood and doesn't much mind whose it is as long as it's innocent. You'd have thought people would notice that this flies in the face of John's and Paul's deep-rooted theology of the love of the triune God: not ‘God was so angry with the world that he gave us his son’ but ‘God so loved the world that he gave us his son.’” The report concluded with a reference to the Revd Steve Chalke, “a prominent Baptist minister” who “was criticised by some Evangelicals, in 2004, for describing the penal substitutionary model of the atonement as ‘a form of cosmic child abuse - a vengeful Father, punishing his son’.”
Such controversy is not new. But how is it that such able people argue against a common-sense reading of the New Testament? Many things can be said, not least the fact of a woodenness with regard to the metaphors in the hymn’s traditional atonement theology. What convinced me, as a student, of this traditional view (apart from a common-sense reading of Paul) were Jesus’ words in Mark 10.45: “even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve¸ and to give his life as a ransom for many.” The preposition “for” in this context in the original means “in the place of” many. However, a basic problem is the reality (or not) of God’s “anger” or “wrath” and which is associated with the Final Judgment. That many find even more unacceptable.
God’s “wrath” and the Final Judgement
So what can claim to be biblical teaching on God’s wrath – for now and for the future? Dr J I Packer wrote a book entitled Concise Theology with articles on a range of Christian doctrines and concepts. These in slightly abbreviated form appear now in The (ESV) Reformation Study Bible (edited by R.C.Sproul). The (abbreviated) article entitled The Final Judgment is a helpful summary. Let me quote it verbatim.
The certainty of final judgement is the background against which the New Testament message of saving grace is set. Paul no less than Jesus stresses this certainty. According to Paul, Jesus Christ saves us from “the wrath to come” (1 Thess 1.10) on “the day of wrath when God's righteous judgement will be revealed” (Rom 2.5; cf. John 3.36; Rom 5.9; Eph 5.6; Col 3.6; Rev 6.17; 19,15). Throughout Scripture, God’s “indignation,” “anger,” and “fury” are judicial; these words point to the holy Creator as the active Judge of sin. The message of coming judgement for all mankind, with Jesus Christ completing the work of his mediatorial kingdom by acting as Judge on his Father's behalf, runs throughout the New Testament (Matt 13.40-43; 25.41-46; John 5.22-30; Acts 10.42; 2 Cor 5.10; 2 Tim 4.1; Heb 9.27; 10.25-31; 12.23; 2 Pet 3.7; Jude 6.7; Rev 20.11-15). When Christ comes again and history is completed, all people of all times will be raised for the judgement and take their place before Christ’s throne. The event surpasses imagination, but the human imagination is not the measure of what God will do.
At the judgement every person will give an individual account to God, and God through Christ “will render to each one according to his works” (Rom 2.6; cf. Ps 62.12; Matt 16.27; 2 Cor 5.10; Rev 22.12). The regenerate, who as servants of Christ have learned to love righteousness and desire the glory of heaven, will be acknowledged, and on the basis of Christ's merit on their behalf they will be awarded the righteousness they seek. The rest will go to a destiny commensurate with the godless way of life they have chosen, a place assigned to them on the basis of their own demerit (Rom 2.6-11). How much they knew of the will of God will determine the severity of their condemnation (Matt 11.20-24; Luke 11.42-48; Rom 2.12). The judgment will demonstrate the perfect justice of God. In a world of sinners, where God has “allowed all the nations to walk in their own ways” (Acts 14.16), evil is rampant, and doubts arise about how God, if he is sovereign, can be just, or, if he is just, can be sovereign. But God will be glorified in rendering just judgement, and the Last Judgement will answer every suspicion that he has ceased to care about righteousness
(Ps 50.16-21; Rev 6.10; 16.5-7; 19.1-5).
For those who profess to belong to Christ, a review of their words and works (Matt 12.36, 37) will show whether their profession is the fruit of an honest and good heart (Matt 12.33-35), or a deceptive hypocrisy (Matt 7.21-23). Everything will be exposed on Judgement Day (1 Cor 4.5), and each person will receive from God what fairly belongs to them. Those whose professed faith did not express itself in a new life, marked by hatred of sin and love of righteousness, will be lost (Matt 18.23-35; 25. 34-46; James 2.14-26). Yet God has announced the day of judgement before the time, commanding everyone to repent and love life rather than death (Deut 30.19; Luke 13. 24).
Fundamental in all this is the fact that the opposite of God’s “wrath” is not “love” but “neutrality” to human sin. Because of the reality of his wrath, which in no way is irrational and vengeful as human wrath can be, God the Father’s love means that by God the Holy Spirit, through prophets and apostles, he warns us to repent (to rethink and turn around) trusting in God the Son, “Jesus, who delivers us from the wrath to come” (1 Thess 1.10). That is good news.