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Blogging Romans: The Wrath of God

January 12, 2012

Last night was the first meeting of a six-week study of Romans that I’m leading at St. Peter’s.  I’m going to try to distill my thoughts on Paul’s longest epistle each Thursday morning.  I’m enjoying the process of engaging this letter in my preparatory work.  And I’m thankful to the sixteen people who came to the class.  It’s a joy to serve a congregation where people like coming together to be in the Word.

Last night we read the first three chapters of Romans together.  Here, Paul begins to make the case for the power of the gospel, of which he is not ashamed, “For in it the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith; as it is written, ‘The one who is righteous will live by faith’” (Romans 1:17).  Good news!  God has a gospel, a saving word for Jews and Greeks alike, and it hinges on faith alone.

But in the very next verse (1:18) Paul introduces a concept that doesn’t feel like good news at all: the wrath of God.  Wrath, according to Merriam-Webster, has two primary definitions.  First, it is strong, vengeful anger.  Second, it is a retributory punishment for an offense or crime, particularly as divine chastisement.  And here we have a problem, for most of us (at least, most of the “us” with whom I hang out) are not very comfortable with the notion of a wrathful God.  God is love, after all.  Is there room within the love of God for anger and retribution?

But when we push the point, I don’t think that our problem with God’s wrath is that he might be wrathful.  Deep down, our problem with God’s wrath is that he’s not wrathful enough!  I scan the headlines each day and find no shortage of candidates for God’s wrath.  Murderers, pedophiles, big bank robber barons, that guy who cut me off during my morning commute today.  Well, that last one isn’t from the headlines but he has it coming!  Most of us agree that there are plenty of people who have a good smiting or two coming their way.  What kind of God is letting people get away with this stuff?!

Paul’s answer?  God isn’t letting anyone get away with this stuff.  It’s just that God’s wrath doesn’t take shape we’d expect (or like).  God’s not into punishment, you see.  Paul makes the sweeping claim that since the beginning, “what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them” (1:19).  But we have “exchanged the glory of the immortal God” for all kinds of gods that aren’t God.  We have even put ourselves in God’s place.  We have removed ourselves from God’s Lordship.  And here’s how God expresses his wrath: He lets us do this stuff.  God lets us be who we want to be.  He lets us have whatever lords we want.  He permits us the freedom to suffer the consequences for being exactly who we want to be.

God’s punishment isn’t to punish us.  It’s to let us punish ourselves.  God doesn’t punish sin (at least not before the final judgment, in whatever shape that might take).  God lets sin be its own punishment.  The key phrase occurs in 1:24.  God gave them up.  The image I invoked in class last night was from current household events.  We are in the process of potty training our elder child.  She’s doing a pretty good job.  Most of the time, she tells us when she needs to go.  For this, she is rewarded with a great deal of praise (and, from time to time, a disbursement of stickers).  But sometimes she has an accident.  We do not punish our daughter for making a mess in her pants.  The mess is punishment enough.

The mess, however, is not the last word.  Being good parents (most of the time?  I think?) we hustle to get her cleaned up and comforted.  The self-inflicted punishment, as it were, is not forever.  And this is where Paul is heading with his argument about God’s wrath.  It is self-inflicted.  It is temporary.  And it is prelude to the disclosure of the gospel of God.

God’s righteousness, Paul argues, must deal with human sin.  But he doesn’t do so as we’d expect, with fire and brimstone raining down on sinners.  After all, Paul assures us, God does not show partiality.  If God gave fire and brimstone to those who’d earned it, well, who could stand long in his presence?  No, God’s righteousness demands that sin be dealt with.  Our reality (3:9-20) makes clear that we can’t deal with it.  Only God can.  God has let his wrath run its course.  Now (3:21) God has done a new thing, apart from the good deeds of Gentiles or the fulfillment of the law by Jews (or the lack thereof on the part of either group, as Paul sees it).  In response to universal sin, God brings a universal justification for those who have faith, which is simple trust in Jesus Christ as a new Lord for us.

Humanity still suffers its self-inflicted mess.  In that way God’s wrath is alive and well.  But God’s already dealt with it and moved on.  Through Christ, in faith, and for the sake of God’s righteousness, we have been invited to join him.  No, invited isn’t the right word.  In baptism we have been put to death and raised up as people who are now right (justified) with God.  But now I’m getting ahead of Paul’s argument.  This is for next week.  For now, perhaps, it’s enough to hear again that our mess is not the last word.

“They are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.”  Romans 3:24

From → Scripture

  1. unanimous permalink

    Perhaps I am in the minority by thinking this way; however, when I consider God’s wrath I have never even considered it to be not wrathful enough. Just as God provides for me what I need I believe he will take provide justice. That justice may not always be what we want though. Looking to the headlines for people deserving of wrath is looking too far out though. Murders, pedophiles, etc., yes they have committed gross injustices against society, but we need to look closer. I look at myself. I break no laws… OK so I speed sometimes. Yet I in God’s eyes I am the same as a murderer. He states no sin is greater than another, my paraphrase completely. Sorry, I don’t remember where. So he guy who cut you off. Did he sin? Only God know. One of my favorite people in the Bible is King David. In modern terminology, David was a scumbag and yet God found David to be a man after God’s own heart.

    • I have found that the human propensity for judging others – and the desire for our cause against said others to be vindicated – is overwhelming. Paul, if I’m reading him right in these chapters, makes the same case. My point regarding the guy who cut me off is not that I actually think that God should zap this guy, but that I have an easy time judging others and feel that God should do the same. My point – Paul’s point – is that this is universal. I am the speeder/murderer/whatever and so should not cry out for judgment against others, for in doing so such judgment would rightfully fall on me too.

      The larger point, however, is simply that God lets us cut one another off in traffic. Dealing with it is it’s own punishment – we’ve created this mess. God’s answer, however, is not, finally, one of judgment. If it were, he couldn’t be a God who favored David.

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