I once read a story set in the Wild West of a young man who saved a boy trapped on a runaway stagecoach. The man eventually became a judge and the boy, a criminal. Years later, the criminal appeared in the judge’s court, accused of a grievous crime. He recognized the judge and appealed to him, based on their earlier experience, to save him from the death penalty. The judge replied, “Son, on that day I was your savior. Today, I am your judge,” and sentenced him to the gallows. The judge did his job that day, called to administer right judgment based on the facts at hand.
There’s an important balance between God’s love and His holiness. Love without boundaries is dangerous. True love requires love for the truth—in fact, as the Apostle Paul said, “Love rejoices in the truth” (1 Corinthians 13:6). And that truth forms the boundaries for love’s expression. So in Scripture, we see that Jesus loves all kinds of people, including the ones many of us would have a hard time loving: doubters, haters, atheists, homosexuals, traitors and even terrorists. But Jesus doesn’t love what they do. That’s the balance. God loves you, but He doesn’t love everything you do. If we don’t take both sides into account, love becomes license—a permission slip we use to excuse doing what we want instead of what God wants.
Paul put the issue this way: “Do you despise the riches of His goodness, forbearance, and longsuffering, not knowing that the goodness of God leads you to repentance?” (Romans 2:4). With that in mind, we can see, for example, that Jesus loves prostitutes, but He doesn’t love prostitution. He expects the prostitute to leave that lifestyle upon turning to Him. He loves the broken, but He wants to heal them. Jesus came to bring change. It’s His love that affects us and leads us to repentance, and it’s our rejection of His love that leads us to inescapable judgment. The mistake so many make is to separate God’s love from His judgment. As Oswald Chambers once said, “In the teachings of Jesus Christ the element of judgment is always brought out—it is the sign of the love of God.”
Paul established this balance in Romans 1, saying he was not ashamed of the Gospel because it is “the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes” (verse 16). But then, in verse 18, he wrote, “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness.” This theological tension reminds us we’ll never appreciate the Good News until we understand the bad news. It’s the bad news that compels the Good News to be supplied. Wrath summons mercy and grace.
The United States was founded on Biblical truth, with its legal and moral foundation shaped by God’s view of right and wrong. Despite that strong start, we have many today who “suppress the truth in unrighteousness” (verse 18), and it’s not hard to make a case that God is judging the nation because of all who have rejected Him. Many have “exchanged the truth of God for the lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator” (verse 25). To fail to honor God despite the manifest evidence of His creation and the internal testimony of His character and image in us is to invite His wrath.
God’s wrath is the result of our sin. He isn’t just randomly angry, or wrathful by nature; going back to Eden, we have offended Him by our sinful behavior, based on our choices to do things our way instead of His. But He wants us to come back to Him—His goodness should lead us to repentance, but true repentance starts only when we fully realize that we are sinners, that we deserve God’s judgment.
The entire world is guilty before God, including any who consider themselves to be just and moral people. No one keeps every part of God’s law perfectly. Paul wrote, “We know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may become guilty before God” (Romans 3:19). God never changes; He is always perfect, holy, just and righteous. We’ve all fallen short of God’s standards, we all deserve His judgment, and we’ll never find a solution for our predicament apart from Him.
In short, everyone is essentially depraved (a good theological term that has gone missing these days). Sin is part of all our origin stories. We’re all in hot water and headed for eternal flames. Hell isn’t made up or relative to our situation; according to no less an expert than Jesus Himself, it’s a real place of “darkness [where] there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matthew 22:13), and we should “fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matthew 10:28).
But God is “not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9). In fact, He is willing to suffer if that’s what it takes to turn our hearts back to Him. That’s where Jesus comes in. He bought back—with His own blood—the possibility that we can be in God’s favor, and when we receive Him as our risen Lord and Savior, God passes over our sins “that He might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus” (Romans 3:26). God paid the price we could never pay because not only is He eternally holy and just, He is also eternally loving and, until the end of this age of grace, continually merciful and forgiving. That’s the Good News—and oh, is it good!
Once you’ve made that all-important decision to receive Christ—which is basically accepting a gift you could never earn but God offers freely—then you’ve got work to do. You don’t work to earn that salvation—again, you never could—but out of gratitude, you offer every part of your life to God, letting His Spirit work in you to make you more and more like Jesus in nature and character. That means surrendering all of your old habits, thoughts and deeds to Him—and doing so ruthlessly, no holds barred.
Paul put it like this: “Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry. Because of these, the wrath of God is coming” (Colossians 3:5-6, NIV). It’s like taking out the trash.
You clear out the old, used-up stuff that can only harm you if it lays around, so you can start fresh. In Christ, you are a new creation, but what does that look like in terms of your behavior? Paul offers a few laundry lists, one of what you’re getting rid of—“anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language” (Colossians 3:8)—and another of what you should be doing to imitate Christ: “Clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience” (Colossians 3:12).
I’ve heard people say, “How can God help me change? I am what I am—it’s not just habits, it’s genetics.” You may be genetically predisposed to addictive behavior or socially conditioned because a parent gambled or was addicted to porn or prone to abusive behavior. But you still have a choice. If God’s grace and the blood of Christ are enough to save you from hell, they are certainly enough to help you overcome any obstacle you’re facing. Jesus said, “Without Me, you can do nothing” (John 15:5). No amount of counseling, book reading or medication can bring the lasting heart change you need like God can. That kind of deep change starts with a choice. When you choose Jesus, He gives you the power to change: “If you abide in Me, and My words abide in you, you will ask what you desire, and it shall be done for you” (John 15:7).
The Bible makes it clear that God’s wrath is coming. He has given us one way out: Jesus Christ. What He has not given us is a list of excuses for why we can’t use His exit strategy. Once we’re a new creation in Christ, He will give us what we need to overcome old habits that incur wrath and start new ones that honor Him. The bad news is that God’s wrath is real, and it is coming. The good news is that in Christ we “shall not come into judgment” (John 5:24), we can “walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:4), and we look forward to a post-wrath future because, “if we have been united together in the likeness of His death, certainly we also shall be in the likeness of His resurrection” (Romans 6:5).
We need to acknowledge that God is “slow to anger and great in power, and will not at all acquit the wicked” (Nahum 1:3). Above all, we should remember a verse that Martin Luther called “an overwhelming consolation”: “The Lord is good, a stronghold in the day of trouble; and He knows those who trust in Him” (Nahum 1:7).
If you have embraced the Good News of Jesus Christ, the bad news of coming judgment holds no terror for you. Rejoice in your salvation, and do what you can to let others know that God’s escape plan is Good News for them, too. ©2018 Skip Heitzig
Unless otherwise noted, Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New King James Version. Scripture quotations marked NIV are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version.
Skip Heitzig is founder and senior pastor of Calvary church in Albuquerque.