The wrath of God

I recently observed a discussion on the subject of the wrath of God. It was sparked by the hymn “In Christ alone” – some parties to the discussion objected strongly to the lines, “And on the cross as Jesus died, the wrath of God was satisfied”, one person describing it as “bad theology”. I was uncomfortable with the discussion, but for reasons I couldn’t entirely put into words, and so I simply observed and didn’t participate. Ever since, I have been thinking about why it made me so uncomfortable.

The nearest I could put it into words was that there are some things that make me very angry – things in the world around me, things in society and even in myself. I sincerely hope they make God angry, too – otherwise the idea that He is holy, or even minimally just, is meaningless. If I thought God could look at the victims of Jimmy Savile’s vile predation and then contemplate Savile’s behaviour with benign indulgence, I would be outraged. If I thought he could observe without rage the senseless and wanton destruction of precious human lives in Syria, I would never pray again. I want a God who sometimes feels wrath. But this in itself did not fully explain my unease at the discussion – I doubt whether any of the participants would disagree with me this far.

While researching this article, I came across another blog (http://troyhochstetler.wordpress.com/2008/07/07/if-i-could-change-the-lyrics/) which also quoted this hymn and proposed, as an alternative wording, “the love of God exemplified”. This, for me, raised more questions than it answered. If the cross is an atonement, it must be the way in which the sin which, I hope, angers God in this world, is dealt with. Otherwise, it isn’t an atonement. And if we don’t see the cross of Jesus in terms of atonement, it leaves us with a problematic view of God’s character.

Firstly, how can sin be forgiven, removed, done away, without being atoned for? Imagine a judge who smiled on and pardoned every offender without ever demanding that they pay for their crimes in some way, or provide some kind of justice for their victims. We wouldn’t see such a judge as loving and good so much as unjust and lazy.

Secondly, if the cross was not an atonement which satisfied the wrath of God against human sin, if it was simply God’s love exemplified, if God could forgive us without requiring that kind of atonement, then it might have been very nice of Him to identify in this way with our human plight, but it wasn’t strictly necessary. And we would have to have very disturbing doubts about a father who allowed his son to suffer the things that Jesus suffered if it wasn’t strictly necessary. Surely if there had been any other way at all for our sin to be removed and for us to be reconciled to God, He would have taken it?

These are the implications that we have to think about when we want to remove the idea of the wrath of God. Please don’t misunderstand me. I don’t believe God is judgemental, even though I believe He is a righteous judge. I don’t believe God is a God of punishment, even though I believe justice demands that sin is punished. I believe that God is actively looking for opportunities to shower His grace on us, that He is not willing that any should perish, and that there will be vastly fewer people in hell than the average evangelical upbringing might lead you to expect.

I think that, paradoxically, God is far more aware than we are of the enormity and vileness of our sin, those little character traits which we’re not proud of, which we try to explain away as the result of tiredness or stress; and yet he takes a far more kindly and understanding view than we do of our failings, does not condemn us when we condemn ourselves, knows our frame and remembers that we are dust.

Since the discussion was a few weeks ago, why am I blogging about it now? I have just been to the funeral of a much-loved aunt, taken from us too soon. She had anticipated her death, though I don’t think she realised how soon or how suddenly it would come, and had planned her own funeral, including hymns and Bible readings. She had chosen the offending hymn which started the discussion. She had also chosen “Before the throne of God above”. She had exemplified the calm trust with which a lover of Jesus, who knows herself also to be His beloved, slips gently into His direct presence without fear or doubt. Letter upon letter had been received by her family from neighbours who had been on the receiving end of her kindness and practical help.

As I thought about the example of her life and her death, and with the words of scripture and hymns still ringing in my ears from her funeral, I began to see afresh the wonder of exactly what Jesus accomplished for us by His death. I stood in a crowded place today, looking at a sea of faces, people who, by and large, are probably unaware of God’s tender heart of compassion for them, unaware of the way in which their own sinfulness places a barrier between them and Him, unaware that He did the only thing He could to sweep that barrier away and sacrificed His own Son in an atoning death that dealt with all that keeps them away from Him.

I wanted to stand up and sing at the top of my lungs,
“Because the sinless Saviour died,
My sinful soul is counted free,
For God the just is satisfied
To look on Him and pardon me.”

Instead I prayed that God will send such an outpouring of the Holy Spirit that hearts all over this nation, indeed this world, will open to His love and forgiveness. And I resolved to lose no opportunity to share His love with those who come within my reach every day – neighbours, friends, Big Issue sellers, and anyone else whom He sends my way.

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My Abba

I remember a time when I had not this shoulder
To lean on when all was weariness,
When, burdened with knowledge, I was much older,
Before You restored my childlikeness;
I remember, Your gentle call to trust
Was out of earshot, drowned by clamour,
And these decaying handfuls of dust
Deceived me with their veneer of glamour.

I remember before these encircling arms
Had penetrated my wall of defence,
How cold the nights, and how many harms
Mocked my counterfeit confidence.
Before Your outstretched hand could touch me
To shelter me when I was frail,
Each grasping hand that tried to clutch me
Lacked love’s hallmark scar of nail.

But now – I am wrapped in a strong embrace,
All this has faded with dawn of day
And I’m staring into the kindest face
That ever smiled and kissed hurts away.
And the only reason I’d ever look back
On days that were lost and nights that were lone
Is to pause for a moment along the track
And erect my Ebenezer-stone.

And I’m lost again, only not this time
In the dark or the fear, but in wonder and joy,
And I don’t have to strive or work or climb
Or find some strategy to employ –
I am simply engulfed in all of You,
And the beauty of You fills all my gaze
And the well that is deep and living and true
Is bubbling up in a spring of praise.

For this is my Lover, my God, my Friend,
My Rock and my Castle, my strong Defender,
And no one from here to universe-end
Has a love so pure or a heart so tender.
And this is the King who will rule creation
With justice and peace we have not yet known,
So with nothing to give but my heart’s adoration,
I lay my whole life at the foot of His throne.

Are you a bishop?

A recent conversation around a cafe table set me thinking. Someone said, “There’s a real lack of pastoral care in this church. If it wasn’t for such-and-such-a-friend I would have left the church by now.” And I found myself thinking, “How is that a complaint about lack of pastoral care? It sounds great to me, as if the members of the body are functioning just as they’re meant to do.”

In Hebrews 12.15 it says “See to it that no one falls short of the grace of God.” The Greek word translated “See to it” is the word έπισκοπουντες (episkopountes). Literally it means to have oversight of, or care for, something or someone. This verb derives from the noun έπισκοπος (episkopos) which is usually translated in our English Bibles as either overseer or bishop. In other words the writer to the Hebrews (who was it? I like the theory that suggests Priscilla as the author!) is saying oversee each other, look out for one another, exercise the care of a bishop over the flock, to ensure that nobody misses the grace that God has for them.

The interesting thing to note is that this command (because that’s what it is) doesn’t occur in one of the pastoral epistles. This is not Paul writing to a young pastor encouraging him on how to lead the church. This is written to the ordinary man and woman in the pew. Look, says the Holy Spirit via whoever this author is, all of you should be acting like bishops. A bishop carries as a symbol of his office a shepherd’s crook. This is an implement which can assist in crossing rugged or treacherous terrain in search of the lost sheep, and it can be used to reach into inaccessible places to hook the lamb out of peril and back into safety. That, says the writer to the Hebrews, is the kind of ministry that all of you should be exercising in respect of each other.

So when someone says, “If it wasn’t for you I would have left the church”, that isn’t an indictment of the lack of pastoral care. It’s a healthy sign that someone in the congregation understands that he stands in the role of bishop to his fellow members, and has a role in keeping them in the path God has for them, guarding them from straying into a place where they miss out on all God wants to give them. It’s not something that is supposed to be left to the pastor, it’s a normal part of our role as members of the church of Jesus Christ. Did you know you were a bishop? Who are you overseeing? As long as we’re all functioning as we should and looking out for each other, no one will slip through the “pastoral care” net and the body of Christ will be in a healthy state!