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Wed Mar 05, 2014
by Winfield Bevins
There is no love without wrath
Fairly often, I meet people who say, “I have a personal relationship with a loving God, yet I don’t believe in Jesus Christ at all.”
“Why not?” I ask. They reply, “Because God is too loving to pour out infinite suffering on anyone for sin.” But their answer raises another set of questions, namely: “Did it cost God anything to love us and embrace us? Did he agonize or cry out for us? What else is lost if we lose Jesus’s nails and thorns?” Their answer usually is: “I don’t think any of that was necessary.” How unsatisfying this is in the end.
In an effort to make God more loving, we often make God less loving. His love, in this understanding, required no action. It was sentimentality, not love at all. The worship of a God like this will always end up being impersonal, cognitive, and ethical. There will be no joyful self-abandonment, no humble boldness, no constant sense of wonder. We would not sing to such a being, “Love so amazing, so divine, demands my soul, my life, my all.”
This more “sensitive” approach to the subject of wrath or hell is actually impersonal. It says, “It doesn’t matter if you believe in the person of Christ, as long as you follow his example.” But to say that is to say the essence of religion is intellectual and ethical, not personal. To say that any good person can find God is to create a religion without tears, without experience, without contact.
Knowing a person
The gospel is not less than an understanding of biblical truths and principles, but it is infinitely more. The essence of salvation is knowing a Person (John 17:3). As with knowing any person, there is repenting and weeping and rejoicing and encountering. The gospel calls us to a wildly passionate, intimate love relationship with Jesus Christ, and it calls that “the core of true salvation.”
What about wrath?
What rankles many people today is the wrath of God: “I can’t believe in a God who sends people to suffer eternally. What kind of a loving God is filled with wrath?” So in preaching about hell, we must explain that a God without wrath is a God without love. Here’s how I tried to do that in one sermon:
People ask, “What kind of a loving God could be filled with wrath?” But any loving person is often filled with wrath. In Hope Has Its Reasons, Becky Pippert writes, “Think how we feel when we see someone we love ravaged by unwise actions or relationships. Do we respond with benign tolerance as we might toward strangers? Far from it. . . . Anger isn’t the opposite of love. Hate is, and the final form of hate is indifference.”
Pippert then quotes E. H. Gifford, “Human love here offers a true analogy: the more a father loves his son, the more he hates in him the drunkard, the liar, the traitor.”
She concludes: “If I, a flawed, narcissistic, sinful woman, can feel this much pain and anger over someone’s condition, how much more a morally perfect God who made them? God’s wrath is not a cranky explosion, but his settled opposition to the cancer of sin which is eating out the insides of the human race he loves with his whole being.”
This is why faithful and balanced preaching on this subject must depict hell as both the result of a human choice (as “the greatest monument to human freedom”) and of divine judgment. God must, and does, actively judge and reject those who have rejected him.
How much God was willing to suffer
Once, following a sermon on the Parable of Lazarus and the rich man, the post-service question-and-answer session focused on the subject of eternal judgment. My heart sank when a young college student said, “I’ve gone to church all my life, but I don’t think I can believe in a God like this.” Her tone was more sad than defiant, but her willingness to stay and talk showed that her mind was open.
Usually in these sessions all the questions were pitched to me, and I would respond as best I could. But on this occasion people began answering one another. An older businesswoman said, “Well, I’m not much of a churchgoer, and I’m in some shock now. I always disliked the very idea of hell, but I never thought about it as a measure of what God was willing to endure in order to love me.”
Then a mature Christian made a connection with a sermon a month before on Jesus at Lazarus’ tomb in John 11. “The text tells us that Jesus wept,” he said, “yet he was also extremely angry at evil. That’s helped me. He is not just an angry God or a weeping, loving God—he’s both. He doesn’t only judge evil, but he also takes the hell and judgment himself for us on the cross.”
The second woman nodded, “Yes. I always thought hell told me about how angry God was with us, but I didn’t know it also told me about how much he was willing to suffer and weep for us. I never knew how much hell told me about Jesus’ love. It’s very moving.”
Indeed, it is only because of the doctrine of judgment and hell that Jesus’ proclamation of grace and love are so brilliant and astounding. May we never lose sight of either in our preaching.
This post is excerpted from Dr. Keller’s article “Preaching Hell in a Tolerant Age”
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