The head of the department of evangelism for a major denomination in America said, “We don’t need to evangelize the people of the world who have never heard the message of salvation. We only need to announce to them that they’re already saved.”
That statement reflects the rising tide of universalism—the belief that, because God is too loving and gracious to send anyone to hell, everyone ultimately will go to heaven. If that were true, there obviously would be no place for judgment in the proclamation of the gospel. Just as obviously there would be no place for biblical evangelism, as the person quoted above contends.
But those liberal views are nothing new. They reflect a long-established sentiment in mainstream denominations. Sixty years ago, an article in The Times of London reported that fourteen church study groups looked at the Old Testament psalms and concluded that eighty-four of them were “not fit for Christians to sing” The Times of London, “Psalms Chosen from New Testament,” August 23, 1962, 1:10. They reasoned that the wrath and vengeance reflected in those psalms was not compatible with the Christian gospel of love and grace.
Unlike those who have made God’s character subject to their own selective editorial, Scripture makes no effort to censor God’s least-palatable attributes. Justice, wrath, and judgment are as much divine attributes as are love, mercy, and grace. In chapters 27–28 of Deuteronomy, more than fifty verses detail God’s judgment on those who violate His commandments. In response to Jeremiah’s plea for vengeance against his enemies, God said,
“Behold, I am about to bring a calamity upon this place, at which the ears of everyone that hears of it will tingle. Because they have forsaken Me and have made this an alien place and have burned sacrifices in it to other gods, that neither they nor their forefathers nor the kings of Judah had ever known, and because they have filled this place with the blood of the innocent and have built the high places of Baal to burn their sons in the fire as burnt offerings to Baal, a thing which I never commanded or spoke of, nor did it ever enter My mind; therefore, behold, days are coming,” declares the Lord, “when this place will no longer be called Topheth or the valley of Ben-hinnom, but rather the valley of Slaughter. I will make void the counsel of Judah and Jerusalem in this place, and I will cause them to fall by the sword before their enemies and by the hand of those who seek their life; and I will give over their carcasses as food for the birds of the sky and the beasts of the earth. (Jeremiah 19:3–7)
Isaiah declared, “Behold, the day of the Lord is coming, cruel, with fury and burning anger, to make the land a desolation; and He will exterminate its sinners from it” (Isaiah 13:9). Nahum testified:
A jealous and avenging God is the Lord; the Lord is avenging and wrathful. The Lord takes vengeance on His adversaries, and He reserves wrath for His enemies. The Lord is slow to anger and great in power, and the Lord will by no means leave the guilty unpunished. (Nahum 1:2–3)
Lest some think that God’s wrath and judgment are primarily Old Testament concepts, it should be noted that the New Testament has equally vivid portrayals of those divine attributes. When a group of Pharisees and Sadducees came to John the Baptist for baptism, he dismissed them with the scathing words, “You brood of vipers, who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Therefore bear fruit in keeping with repentance” (Matthew 3:7–8).
On a later occasion John the Baptist told some inquiring Jews, “He who believes in the Son has eternal life; but he who does not obey the Son will not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him” (John 3:36).
Jesus was God incarnate and therefore love incarnate, but He spoke more about judgment and hell than anyone else in Scripture. He probably spoke more about those truths than everyone else in the New Testament combined. The Sermon on the Mount is replete with warnings about divine wrath and judgment.
I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother shall be guilty before the court; and whoever says to his brother, “You good-for-nothing,” shall be guilty before the supreme court; and whoever says, “You fool,” shall be guilty enough to go into the fiery hell. (Matthew 5:22)
If your right eye makes you stumble, tear it out and throw it from you; for it is better for you to lose one of the parts of your body, than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. If your right hand makes you stumble, cut it off, and throw it from you; for it is better for you to lose one of the parts of your body, than for your whole body to go into hell. (Matthew 5:29–30)
Christ declared that “the sons of the kingdom [unbelieving Jews] will be cast out into the outer darkness; in that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matthew 8:12).
As He sent out the twelve to witness in Israel, Jesus told them,
Whoever does not receive you, nor heed your words, as you go out of that house or that city, shake the dust off your feet. Truly I say to you, it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah in the day of judgment than for that city. (Matthew 10:14–15)
Later during that same time of instruction, He said, “Do not fear those who kill the body but are unable to kill the soul; but rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matthew 10:28).
The apostle Paul declared that it is because of “the fear of the Lord [that] we persuade men” (2 Corinthians 5:11). In other words, it is because of God’s fearful judgment on unbelieving mankind that we should be motivated to witness to God’s provision of escape through Jesus Christ. Luke reports that when Paul began to speak about “righteousness, self-control and the judgment to come, Felix [the governor] became frightened” (Acts 24:25). Paul warned the Ephesian church: “Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of these things the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience” (Ephesians 5:6). The same apostle warned unbelievers: “Because of your stubbornness and unrepentant heart you are storing up wrath for yourself in the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God” (Romans 2:5).
The author of Hebrews declared, “For if we go on sinning willfully after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a terrifying expectation of judgment and the fury of a fire which will consume the adversaries” (Hebrews 10:26–27). The writer goes on to say, “For if those did not escape when they refused him who warned them on earth, much less will we escape who turn away from Him who warns from heaven” (Hebrews 12:25).
In his vision from Patmos, the apostle John heard an angel warn unbelievers,
If anyone worships the beast and his image, and receives a mark on his forehead or on his hand, he also will drink of the wine of the wrath of God, which is mixed in full strength in the cup of His anger; and he will be tormented with fire and brimstone in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb. And the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever; and they have no rest day and night. (Revelation 14:9–11)
The New Testament ends with the somber warning from the Lord Himself:
Blessed are those who wash their robes, so that they may have the right to the tree of life, and may enter by the gates into the city. Outside are the dogs and the sorcerers and the immoral persons and the murderers and the idolaters, and everyone who loves and practices lying. I testify to everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: if anyone adds to them, God will add to him the plagues which are written in this book; and if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God will take away his part from the tree of life and from the holy city, which are written in this book. (Revelation 22:14–15, 18–19)
Preachers who warn of God’s wrath find themselves in good biblical company. Conversely, those who deliberately avoid or deny the reality of God’s wrath find themselves in the company of those who “[take] away from the words of the book of this prophecy” (Revelation 22:19).
As we’ll see next time, the bad news of God’s wrath is the necessary precursor to the good news of His grace. Without it, the sinner can never know what exactly he needs salvation from.
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