Is it possible to preach the love of God without preaching His wrath? There’s no shortage of modern preachers who think so. Churches that deliver warnings about God’s wrath, judgment, and hell are few and far between these days. Some years ago the Los Angeles Times ran a front-page article titled “Hold the Fire and Brimstone.” In it, the secular writers investigated the widespread disappearance of God’s fiery judgment from American pulpits. They observed:
Hell’s fall from fashion indicates how key portions of Christian theology have been influenced by a secular society that stresses individualism over authority and the human psyche over moral absolutes. The rise of psychology, the philosophy of existentialism and the consumer culture have all dumped buckets of water on hell. Mike Anton and William Lobdell, “Hold the Fire and Brimstone,” Los Angeles Times, June 19, 2002.
The reporters probably weren’t Christians, but their observations were remarkably perceptive. You won’t have to look too hard to find a local congregation that squares with their assessment. Tragically, most seeker-sensitive pastors are completely blind to what the secular leftist news source sees so clearly.
Hell is far from dead. A May 2001 Gallup poll of adults nationwide found that 71% believe in hell.
They just don’t want to hear about it.
Log onto www.pastors.com, the Web site run by Lake Forest’s Saddleback Church, whose senior pastor, Rick Warren, says the Bible’s teachings on hell guide his ministry. Scan the list of sermons for sale. There are sermons on abortion, addiction and ambition. Laughter, leadership and love. War, work and worry. More than 350 topics in all.
Nothing on hell. Anton and Lobdell.
People like Warren who avoid the subject of God’s wrath are effectively no better than the liberals who outright deny it. Either way, you end up with a neutered gospel that removes the purpose and motivation for witnessing—namely, the God-glorifying salvation of unbelievers from sin and hell.
Bible teacher R. A. Torrey wisely wrote:
Shallow views of sin and of God’s holiness, and of the glory of Jesus Christ and His claims upon us, lie at the bottom of weak theories of the doom of the impenitent. When we see sin in all its hideousness and enormity, the Holiness of God in all its perfection, and the glory of Jesus Christ in all its infinity, nothing but a doctrine that those who persist in the choice of sin, who love darkness rather than light, and who persist in the rejection of the Son of God, shall endure everlasting anguish, will satisfy the demands of our own moral intuitions. . . . The more closely men walk with God and the more devoted they become to His service, the more likely they are to believe this doctrine.  R. A. Torrey, What the Bible Teaches (New York, NY: Revell, 1898], 311–13.
Throughout the history of the church, faithful men of God have understood and proclaimed the biblical truths that God is a God of justice and judgment and that His wrath is against all unbelief and ungodliness. That knowledge was the great motivation for their tireless service in winning the lost. John Knox pleaded before God, “Give me Scotland or I die.” As the young Hudson Taylor contemplated the fate of the unreached multitudes of China, he earnestly prayed, “I feel that I cannot go on living unless I do something for China.” Upon landing in India, Henry Martyn said, “Here I am in the midst of heathen midnight and savage oppression. Now, my dear Lord, let me burn out for Thee.” Adoniram Judson, the famed missionary to Burma, spent long, tiresome years translating the Bible for that people. He was eventually put into prison because of his work, and while there his wife died. After being released, he contracted a serious disease that sapped what little energy he had left. Nevertheless he prayed, “Lord, let me finish my work. Spare me long enough to put the saving Word into the hands of the people.” James Chalmers, a Scottish missionary to the South Sea Islands, was so burdened for the lost that someone wrote of him, “In Christ’s service he endured hardness, hunger, shipwreck and exhausting toil, and did it all joyfully. He risked his life a thousand times and finally was clubbed to death, beheaded, and eaten by men whose friend he was and whom he sought to enlighten.” Although he was unable to go overseas, Robert Arthington enabled countless others to go. By working hard and living frugally he managed to give over $500,000 to the work of foreign missions. He testified, “Gladly would I make the floor my bed, a box my chair, and another box my table, rather than that men should perish for want of the knowledge of Christ.”
Those faithful saints, and many others like them, have clearly understood the wrath and the judgment of God and the consequent horror of men dying without Christ. Without such understanding there is no basis for evangelism. If men are not lost, hopeless, and incapable of glorifying God apart from Christ, there is no reason for them to be saved by Him.
The biblical order in any gospel presentation is always first the warning of danger and then the way of escape, first the judgment on sin and then the means of pardon, first the message of condemnation and then the offer of forgiveness, first the bad news of guilt and then the good news of grace. The whole message and purpose of the loving, redeeming grace of God offering eternal life through Jesus Christ rests upon the reality of man’s universal guilt of abandoning God and thereby being under His sentence of eternal condemnation and death.
Consistent with that approach, the apostle Paul’s great systematic presentation of the gospel (Romans 1–5) begins with a clear affirmation of God’s wrath: “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who suppress the truth in unrighteousness” (Romans 1:18).
The bad news of God’s wrath forms the necessary backdrop for the good news of the gospel. The wrath of God is the doctrine that provides meaning for—and magnifies—the biblical concepts of God’s love, mercy, grace, patience, and salvation. Any refusal to warn sinners of God’s wrath is effectively a refusal to faithfully preach the gospel.
(Adapted from The MacArthur New Testament Commentary: Romans 1–8)