Saturday, June 27, 2009

Rejoicing in the Wrath of God

Over the last couple of days, I have been blogging in response to Steve Chalke’s essay in the book The Atonement Debate (Zondervan, 2008). I have argued that, contra Chalke, the Bible does teach that God is angry at sin and sinners, and that his justice must be satisfied, and his wrath appeased, if we are to be reconciled to him. I have stated several times that I am not eager for an angry God, but rather I am eager to be faithful to the Bible and I’ve asked you, dear reader, to join me in this eagerness. We all fall short of absolute fidelity to the Word of God but we ought, nonetheless, to strive for the same and try as best we can to understand God as he has revealed himself, not as we want him to be.

At the close of my comments yesterday I asserted that the wrath of God causes the people of God to rejoice. I said that, in order to avoid confusion, I would sketch out today how this is so. More needs to be said than I can say here, but I want at least to provide a brief summary of the biblical ground on which this claim stands.

One of the first essays I wrote in college was on the wrath and love of God, and probably the main effect it has had on my life is to cause joy to rise up in my heart whenever I contemplate the wrath of God. A few years ago I shared this with a pastor friend of mine and, though he said nothing in response, the look on his face seemed to say, "If you knew anything about the wrath of God you would not rejoice in it." At the time, I wasn't sure how to respond, but I knew that the joy in my heart was not stemming from a belittling of the horror of the wrath of God.

Not too long after that conversation, I was reading the book of Revelation and came across several passages that helped me to comprehend and articulate the joy in my heart. The first passage is Revelation 11:15-18: “Then the seventh angel blew his trumpet, and there were loud voices in heaven, saying, ‘The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he shall reign forever and ever.’ And the twenty-four elders who sit on their thrones before God fell on their faces and worshiped God, saying, ‘We give thanks to you, Lord God Almighty, who is and who was, for you have taken your great power and begun to reign. The nations raged, but your wrath came, and the time for the dead to be judged, and for rewarding your servants, the prophets and saints, and those who fear your name, both small and great, and for destroying the destroyers of the earth.’”

Then in chapter 15:1 we read this: “Then I saw another sign in heaven, great and amazing, seven angels with seven plagues, which are the last, for with them the wrath of God is finished." And what was the reaction of those who heard that God was about to pour out that great and terrible and final wrath? "And they sing the song of Moses, the servant of God, and the song of the Lamb, saying, 'Great and amazing are your deeds, O Lord God the Almighty! Just and true are your ways, O King of the nations! Who will not fear, O Lord, and glorify your name? For you alone are holy. All nations will come and worship you, for your righteous acts have been revealed'" (15:3-4).

And finally in the middle of the sixteenth chapter, right after the third bowl of the wrath of God was poured out, there was another outburst of praise: "And I heard the angel in charge of the waters say, 'Just are you, O Holy One, who is and who was, for you brought these judgments. For they have shed the blood of saints and prophets, and you have given them blood to drink. It is what they deserve!' And I heard the altar saying, 'Yes, Lord God the Almighty, true and just are your judgments!'" (Rev 16:5-7)

These texts display, beyond a shadow of doubt, that the wrath of God causes the worship of God to arise in the hearts and mouths of those who love him and are called according to his purpose. This worship does not come out of nowhere but rather is based on at least three grounds.

First, those who love God rejoice in his wrath because his deeds are great and amazing (15:3). The essence of worship is delighting in the glory and greatness of God, and thus seeing a visible display of the same, even in terrible wrath, strikes awe and joy in the souls of those who love God, by grace, and this causes them to worship.

Second, those who love God rejoice in his wrath because God is holy and his ways are just and true (15:3; 16:5-7). Indeed, as the Psalmist has written, "You are good and do good" (Psalms 119:68). Even in his wrath the children of God rejoice because they know that he is infinitely holy, that his motives are pure and right, that he does not lash out in unholy anger as do they. And they know, therefore, that his judgments are just and right and fair, and that everything he thinks and says and does are perfectly in accordance with truth. He never gets it wrong—NEVER! Can you imagine being so perfect in your character that you never misstep with your words or actions? This is true of God, and this truth strikes awe and joy in the hearts of those who love God, by grace, and this causes them to worship.

Third, those who love God rejoice in his wrath because they know that, in the end, "All nations will come and worship [God], for [his] righteous acts have been revealed" (15:4). They know that, in the end, "...every knee will bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father" (Phil 2:10-11). They know that, in the end, everyone will honor and revere this God who they have come to love, by grace, and this causes them to worship.

So in short, the reason the children of God rejoice in the wrath of God is because it is a display of his infinite power and holiness, and because it is a sign that the day is drawing near when every knee will bow before the Almighty and gracious Lord of heaven and earth. The children of God do not rejoice in death and destruction in and of themselves, rather they rejoice in God himself who does all things well—even wrath.

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