Vacation Bible School—circa 1992—I learned that Jesus fed some hungry people and that he loves me so he died for me. Some children raised their hands and went into a room with a senior adult. I really have no clue what they did in there, but something tells me they were signing more paperwork in order to take a public bath on Sunday night a few days later.
The wrath of God warms my heart. What a funny statement, huh? When I attended VBS as a kid, I don’t remember the God who hates sin and punishes the wicked, but I remember lots of tales about Jesus and his 12 dumb friends. Yet, as the years went on, I grew curious of the difference between Jesus and the Santa I took a Polaroid picture with each year at the local Wal-Mart. Santa gives gifts if I’m good. Jesus gives gifts if I’m good.
Then, when I got older I was told that Santa and Jesus were very different. Jesus gives good gifts, you know, heaven and stuff, even if I’m bad. Wow. That’s cool. I was hooked.
The problem with all of this I have found centers on my poor understanding of the wrath of God. We often teach our kids that Jesus was a good guy who did good things. He loved bad people, and even when we found ourselves on the “naughty list,” we got heaven because Jesus died on a cross for our sins. That understanding of Jesus definitely contains some good biblical truths. Jesus gave a free gift of salvation (Eph 2:8), even though I was dead in my sin (Eph 2:1). However, these two truths bookend a message of wrath, and I love to talk about wrath.
The wrath of God reminds me who I was before Christ.
Missing from many gospel conversations is the definite truth about the wrath of God. Paul told the Ephesians that they “were by nature children of wrath” (Eph 2:3). Like the Ephesians before us, apart from Jesus we “once lived in the passions of our flesh” (Eph 2:3). Because of our sin, and because of our enjoyment of it, we deserve wrath. God is no Santa Claus, but he doesn’t brush over our trespasses with a fairy wand either. He pours out his wrath on sinners because we deserve it.
The wrath of God prevails in the end.
The picture we get of Jesus returning in Revelation does not necessarily fit with the cardboard cutout version we learned as children. Sure, maybe he rides the clouds, and maybe his air flows down to the center of his back. Yet, he does not necessarily come back with a big grin and arms opened wide to give the world a nice sloppy wet kiss. John gives us a picture of his return. He writes, “From his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations, and he will rule them with a rod of iron. He will tread the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty” (Rev 19:5).
Now, that, my friends, is a God I can get behind. I don’t mean to exult over the slaughter of the wicked, but this picture of the Jesus fuels my ministry and life as a husband and father. Jesus, this sword-bearing King, wins the final battle. He punishes the wicked, and he eradicates evil.
The wrath of God uncovers the glories of the gospel.
I really love that Jesus loves me. Honestly I cannot remember a time that I did not know that Jesus loved me. He loves me because the Bible tells me so, right? Yet, the cheap love often promised to our children avoids the mention of God’s wrath because we don’t want to scare anyone away. No guest on Sunday morning wants to hear about a God who is ticked off at his people. However, without the wrath of God, how can we truly understand his love? John writes, “In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins” (1 John 4:10).
Propitiation is a big word, but I love it. Propitiation tells me that God’s wrath against me for my sin has been absorbed, down to the last drop, by Jesus. My wife and I like ice cream, like a lot. And when the ice cream container is empty, I’ve been known to lick the sides and top of the container to get the last bit of cold, creamy goodness out of the container. To think, Jesus absorbed all of the punishing wrath meant for me because of my rebellion—well, that changes things.
No one here wants us calling for the next summer’s VBS material to focus on the wrath of God alone. Yet, I wonder how much more our children and guests would understand God’s incredible love for them if they understood God’s awful wrath coming for them because of their sin. If you’re like me, the beauty of the gospel transformed you only once the ugliness of your sin and dread of God’s wrath consumed you. Hellfire and brimstone preaching will not suffice, but neither will a mushy Christianity.
Proclaim Jesus and his gospel, but make sure to proclaim the love of Jesus within the context of his wrath. That’s where the good stuff is.