Updated: Jul 8, 2020
In this new series, "Arrival," we're going to look at how, in Jesus Christ, God has given us a transformational language for speaking about ourselves, our world, and our place in the world. He has given us a new way to talk about sin, forgiveness, and purpose in life. It is nothing short of a total reorientation of how we see ourselves and our place in the world.
I want to start with the wrath of God. How can you fully appreciate the depth of what Jesus Christ did for us on the cross without understanding sin and the wrath of God? Honesty about our corrupt human nature brings clarity to the transformational power of the cross.
So we're going to talk about sin. But pastor, people don't want to get beat up over their sin. People want to know what the Bible says about success and prosperity. People want to know how to make marriage work or find the right spouse. People want to know how to raise happy kids. People want to know what the Bible says about weight loss or a healthy lifestyle. During the Covid-19 shutdown, a guy watched sermons from 9 of the biggest, most influential churches in America. To get a fair sampling, he watched 4 sermons each. Talk about a Herculean task. He took extensive notes. They covered the first four Sundays of 2020. Ironically, a lot of them promised that, regardless how your 2019 went, 2020 was going to be filled with success and achievement. Beyond that, almost all of them included some of those things I just mentioned.
We're taking the contrarian path for this series. We're kicking things off talking about sin and the wrath of God.
Here's a good place to start. Mark Dever, pastor of a church in our nation's capital, says:
"With His whole nature in combination and harmony, God acts out His own completely consistent opposition to evil. He opposes it with every fiber of His being. And this opposition is His wrath."
That's why the Bible says to hate what is evil. That's why it's okay to say you hate certain things. Child sex slave trafficking. We hate that. Genocide. We hate that. It's okay to say you hate the evil things that people do. It's not okay to say you hate your favorite college team's rival. Not cool. What kinds of people would we be if we didn't hate that which is evil? The same goes for God…and then some. What kind of God would He be if He didn't oppose anything that would pervert, diminish, undermine, or destroy the beauty of His creation?
Wanting to dig a little deeper into God's wrath - it's an absolute necessity that we understand it - sent me to my go-to source for solid Biblical theology…Tim Keller. Here are three solid takes on God's wrath.
The first is taken from Keller’s sermon, “Why Doesn’t Life Make Sense? His Justice” (October 25, 1992):
There are a lot of people who struggle mightily with this whole idea. They say, “If God is a God of love, he doesn’t send people to hell. If God is a God of judgment, he can’t be a God of love. I can’t reconcile the two things.” Yet the Bible insists that not only is God a God both of love and wrath—not only do those two things not conflict with each other, but they actually establish each other. One without the other is nonsense. One without the other is meaningless. If you actually try to somehow extract, remove surgically, excise the Christian message of the wrath and judgment of God, what you actually have is nothing left at all.
God’s active work in judgment is essential to the faith, essential for understanding the work of Christ, and essential for establishing God’s love. Without God’s wrath, God’s love is hollowed of all meaning, and (paradoxically) God’s character is maligned.
To put it another way, what isn't punished is allowed to continue. If you oppose nothing while allowing everything, you've made no distinction between good and evil, right and wrong. They all have equal value.
Eight years later, in a sermon on Gethsemane, this point gets even more personal [“The Dark Garden” (April 2, 2000)]. There Keller candidly explained the wrestling of his own soul:
Years ago, when I was a young minister, it was in the garden of Gethsemane that I came finally to grips, I made my peace as it were (it’s a strange way to put it), with the wrath of God. That might shock some of you that a preaching minister was struggling with the very idea of a God of wrath, a God who sends people to hell. The very idea of it was something that really I struggled with and I wrestled with. I hope that doesn’t shock you, but I did.
Then, it was studying the garden of Gethsemane when I finally came to peace with it because I realized the reason why people get rid of the idea of hell and wrath is because they want a loving God. They say, “I can’t believe in hell and wrath because I want a more loving God.”
I came to realize in the garden of Gethsemane that if you get rid of the idea of hell and wrath, you have a less loving God. . . . If you don’t believe in wrath and hell, it trivializes what he has done. If you get rid of a God who has wrath and hell, you have a god who loves us in general, but that’s not as loving as the God of the Bible, the God of Jesus Christ, who loves us with a costly love.
In other words, God’s active judgment on sinners and the topic of hell is a hard, yet essential, truth. For many it takes a long time to embrace it. Yet the struggle doesn't mean it's a flawed truth. It simply means that God's wrath is so central to the meaning of the cross that we must engage in the struggle to understand and embrace it.
As Jesus passed on from there, he saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax booth, and he said to him, “Follow me.” And he rose and followed him.
And as Jesus reclined at table in the house, behold, many tax collectors and sinners came and were reclining with Jesus and his disciples. And when the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” But when he heard it, he said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.’ For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.”
Keller ended the sermon with this open invitation:
Jesus eating with these sinners is something that will just knock you flat if you understand it. It means no matter what you’ve done, no matter who you are, the distinction that Jesus recognizes is not between the good and the bad. The only distinction that divides humanity now is between the proud and the humble. That’s the only one that counts. It’s the only one that matters.
Are you willing to say, “Lord Jesus, I am not worthy. You don’t owe me a good life. You don’t. You owe me nothing but wrath.” The minute that happens, he rushes in to eat with you. If you say, “You owe me a good life,” the minute that happens, he says, “I have not come for you.” Wow! That’s Christianity. That’s the gospel. That’s simple. That’s profound.
In other words, for Keller, God’s active wrath is essential to understanding God, grace, the gospel, and the Christian faith.
So, with that foundation beneath our feet, let's now turn to Romans 8:1:
There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.
God does not condemn us for our sins if we are in Christ Jesus. To be in Christ Jesus is to belong to him by faith through grace. God gives us hearts to believe, and so we are in Christ. Paul uses that phrase, in Christ, a dozen times in the first chapter of Ephesians alone. Because God has chosen you to believe in His Son, it means Jesus Christ is a safe place from the storm of God's holy and just wrath. Remember, our sin is an affront to the holiness of God. Nothing ugly or broken can stand in the presence of a holy God. Holiness is God's preeminent attribute. What does the Bible say? God is holy, holy, holy. When the Bible says something three times, it means we have to sit up and take notice. God is holy, holy, holy.
Romans 8:2 follows that with:
For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death.
In other words, in Christ Jesus there is freedom from the power of sin. This doesn't mean we are perfect or will never sin. But the trajectory of our lives is one of forgiveness and freedom. That means sin and death have been defeated. Sin's power over our lives has been broken. It no longer poses an eternal threat to our lives in Christ. Amen?
If you're taking notes, here are the two big ideas attached to verses 1 and 2:
JUSTIFICATION - What we can't do ourselves…make our sin go away so we can stand in the presence of our holy God…Jesus Christ did for us on the cross. His death on the cross makes us right with God.
SANCTIFICATION - We are being made holy…set apart by God to love Him and serve Him…as we become more like Jesus in word, thought, and deed.
Here's what's really important to remember about verses one and two - justification and sanctification:
We are not justified because our lives have changed. Our lives are changing because we have been justified.
That is huge. There's nothing we can do to earn God's favor. To put it another way, God doesn't say, "If you do this, then I will love you. If you make these changes, then I will forgive you. If you follow these rules, then I will make a place for you in heaven." The cross changes everything.
What following laws and rules could not do, God did in sending Jesus
Christ. Romans 8:3 is pivotal in our understanding of law and grace:
For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh.
There are some profound truths in this verse.
The first is this:
Sin has been condemned, not merely shown to be condemnable.
We get that, right? When something is condemnable, a specific behavior, let's say, it means it has been criticized or called out. When a President condemns a terrorist attack on U.S. citizens, for example. Such an attack violates any number of laws. The law criticizes the act and calls it condemnable.
Consider Biblical law. In Exodus 20:17, the law says, "You shall not covet." So we know it's wrong…condemnable. The law even prescribes punishment on law breakers. Deuteronomy 28:15 says, "But if you will not obey the voice of the Lord your God or be careful to do all his commandments and his statutes that I command you today, then all these curses shall come upon you and overtake you." There is law and consequences. The law condemns sin.
But Romans 8:3 says, "For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do." So God did something more than criticize sin and call it condemnable. When Paul says, "By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh," he means that in Jesus' flesh - in his suffering and dying body on the cross - God executed a final sentence of condemnation on the sin of everyone who is in Christ. In other words, when we say God condemned sin, we mean that God found sin guilty and sentenced sin to be finally punished and carried out the penalty in the suffering death of His Son.
Let's take a breath and stop there. We'll pick up next week with what it means to say our sin was condemned.