The W word (part 1)

When I became a Christian, it’s because someone told me, “God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life.” I really didn’t know what that meant, but it sounded nice. Someone up there likes me. A lot. 

The problem, I was told, was that I couldn’t know God’s love because of my sin. But no fear: God had already provided a solution through the cross of Jesus Christ. All I had to do was pray a simple prayer to accept Jesus as my Savior, and I could plug into God’s perfect love and plan.

I prayed the prayer.

That was over forty years ago. It wasn’t until later that I learned that there’s far, far more to the gospel; it’s not just about God solving my personal problem.

But we still have to deal with the great biblical themes of God’s love and our sin. It’s right to lead with love. Sooner or later, however, we have to contend with the W-word: “wrath.”

As we saw in the previous post, the third chapter of John’s gospel ends on the notes of both divine love and divine wrath:

The Father loves the Son and has placed all things in his hands. Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever disobeys the Son will not see life, but must endure God’s wrath. (John 3:35-36, NRSV)

We’ve already been told how much God loves the world (John 3:16); here John emphasizes God’s love for the Son, a theme that carries through the entire gospel. The good news is that believing in God’s beloved Son brings eternal life — both a renewed life in the present as well as life everlasting in the future.

Disobedient unbelief, however, means forfeiting the life that God wants to give. In place of grace and mercy, wrath. That sounds like bad news.

But it depends on your perspective.

To begin with, I suspect that when some hear of God’s wrath, they imagine something like God going postal on innocent bystanders. (Hulk, smash.) We fear anger, and rightly so. And how much more should we fear the anger of someone with the power to create the universe?

The question is whether there’s such a thing as “innocent bystanders” where God is concerned. The biblical answer is an emphatic no (e.g., Rom 1:18; 3:23).

This is where perspective comes in. No one likes admitting to sin, especially of the variety that would require someone being crucified in my place. I’m not that bad, am I? I pay my taxes and don’t kick stray dogs. 

Everyone, however, is ready to recognize the evil that is “out there” in the world. We may not think we deserve hell — at least not much. But we’re quick to say that the rest of the world is going there in a handbasket.

Put differently: I don’t want God to be angry with me personally (and I may not even be convinced that there’s all that much to be mad about in the first place). But if I had to choose what kind of god I’d want to run the universe, it sure wouldn’t be one who turned a blind eye to evil.

That is, after all, how the psalmists often think: God, I know you’re out there. Look at all this evil. You need to do something about it. You’re God, aren’t you?

I’m not about to attempt to solve the problem of evil in a blog post. I’m only suggesting that the idea of God’s wrath against sin and evil may not sound like good news to me personally, but it’s good news for a world that suffers brokenness and injustice.

And it’s intrinsic to how John presents the gospel. More on that in part two of this post.