Yay! Holy Scripture was today, and I must say that I kicked ass.
Disclaimer for the grammar nazis: I don’t wanna know. It was a timed paper.
In the context of the 12th chapter of Romans, the wrath of God is something not to be expected, willed, or hoped for, but something to which you deferred. The passage, beginning in the 9th verse and continuing until the end of the chapter in the 21st verse is an exhortation on the sort of behavior and attitudes that a Christian ought to display and embody. The passage makes no reference at all to such behaviors and attitudes being the basis of marker of salvation, but rather the hope that the change wrought in the life of a Christian is more than just a confession of Jesus as Christ, and more than just the charisms discussed earlier in the chapter, but in fact a complete life-change.
Such life changes discuss the role of genuine love, hating evil, how to hope, how to suffer, what role of prayer has, all things to do with deportment of the self in general situations. And then the exhortation continues on to the section dealing with particularly vexing times. We find how we can carry ourselves when persecuted, when faced with particular rejoicing or grief, when and how to be at peace, when we are wronged. And then the exhortation comes right to it: we are not to avenge ourselves, but rather we are to leave room for God – it is for God to repay, it is for God to enact vengeance. Vengeance belongs to God. And then it continues on, driving the point home deeper; we must do the best we can for our enemies – help them, be Christ to them, and by our witness they may find “coals heaped on their heads,” they may repent of their ways. We get the impression that God is served better by their repentance than our own revenge. “Do not be overcome by evil,” it says, “but overcome evil with good.”
The broader context of Romans is a church divided by ethnicity – Gentiles and Jews. Jews have only just returned from their banishment from Rome, only to find that the church continued on in their absence, and now looks more Gentile than ever. Paul’s entire letter takes this tension into account and his tone is frequently reconciling in nature. In the development of his theology of salvation by grace through faith Paul stresses that all, all have sinned and are guilty, both the Jews and the Gentiles and that no one is saved but for grace.
This theme of reconciliation shapes Paul’s understanding of the wrath of God. There is no one for whom Christ did not die, and there is no human way of rightly and justly enacting punishment or vengeance for sins or atrocities. Paul himself had been acting in just such evil ways – persecuting the righteous – but by the grace of God, his heart was transformed and his sin washed away. Paul was reconciled to God, and it seems to be an underlying theme of Paul’s theological and ethical statements. Wrath is only for God, and at the discretion of God. Our place is to love and serve and hope not for wrath (that is not ours to give anyway) but for reconciliation.
In the context of the 10th chapter of Hebrews, the wrath of God is something to be feared by those who have “spurned the Son of God, profaned the blood of the covenant by which they were sanctified, and outraged the Spirit of grace” (10:29). Speaking of the evils and consequences of apostasy, this call to perseverance begins in the 19th verse and continues to the end of the chapter at the 39th verse. Beginning with our admittance to the holiness of God’s presence through faith, and ending with a recollection of earlier (and happier?) times of persecution that were filled with compassion and cheerfulness in the face of adversity, the center of the application is a stern warning that slips into a fearsome threat of what God is capable.
It is interesting to note that just a few lines before the invocation of the wrath of God and judgment of God in verse 30, verse 26 seems to be saying that if an individual “persists in sin after receiving the knowledge of truth” – which might on the surface mean anything from a faithful Christian who is not perfect, to an apostate individual, to a person of a different faith entirely who remained unconvinced by the Christian witness – that Christ no longer died for them, that “there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a fearful prospect of judgment.” This is quite a statement, if it is indeed how the passage was meant to be understood.
The broader context of Hebrews is that of a sermon from a learned and well read disciple of Paul who was probably Jewish, that alternates between discourse and exhortation with a few applications in between. It is uncertain what community he is writing to and what that community looked like – entirely Jewish, comprised only of Gentiles, or some combination. It was probably written before the temple fell and before the martyrdoms, but obviously after some persecution.
And so we have an author who, in the face of apostasy invokes the wrath of God, using it as a tool for evangelism, as if to say, “Come back to the Church and you won’t perish in tragic agony/burn in hell.” It is an interesting method of evangelism that seems to speak from a very low soteriology, if verse 26 is correctly understood in the preceding. Regardless of the foundational theology that produced the passage, the method of evangelism employed here in this sermon is certainly still popular today.
The two passages expounded on above neatly form the background work of the state of the current discussion on the wrath of God. There are some Christians who believe and proclaim that the wrath of God falls on those whose sins are numerous and heinous, on those who do not profess the Christian faith, and on those whose profession of the Christian faith does not meet with their standards. There are other Christians who believe and profess that the wrath of God has an entirely different role in the universe, and that it is to keep humanity from feeling that it must enact vengeance.
Christians who believe and proclaim that the wrath of God falls on those who sin greatly clearly hearken to the words of the sermon writer of Hebrews. It is a weighty and terrible thing to be offered salvation and refuse, or disrespect it, and the outrage of these Christians is considerable and understandable, taken in light of this passage. The umbrage they feel is not on their own behalf, but out of love and respect of the God they worship. Devastating, however, is the effect of such a message in the face of human tragedy, which appears to some to be an act of vengeance of God. Devastating and supremely unhelpful were calls, for instance, that Hurricane Katrina was the wrath of God to wipe out sinful New Orleans. Where is the God that suffers with creation, as a mother during labor? Where is the Spirit that hovers over the earth, like a hen broods over her chicks? Where is the person of Christ who needs to be fed, clothed, sheltered, and saved from the rising waters?
Christians who believe and proclaim that the wrath of God exists not to be called forth or identified, but so that we children of God may not need any form of wrath in our lives clearly have their theology formed in whole or in part by Paul’s words from his letter to the Romans. This is the wrath of God that saves us from needing to use anger as a weapon. This is the wrath of God that saves us from letting evil creep in and take over our lives. This is the wrath of god that allows love to have free rein in our lives, allows us to live always with the unknowableness of God’s grace and mercy, and the awe-inspiring scope of God’s forgiveness, which through the sacrifice of Jesus the Christ – one for all, always – we are all entitled, we are all heirs to the kingdom.
The New Interpreter’s Study Bible, New Revised Standard Version with the Apocrypha. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2003.
In other news, I’m happy but exhausted. It’s 7:40 and I think I’m going to bed now. Happy Birthday, Kate!
63% amorality, 81% passion, 81% spirituality, 90% selflessness
|Dawn is a person driven by her love for her friends and her desire to make a difference. Perhaps you are, too. You’re willing to do whatever is necessary to do what is right for those you care about, and sometimes this can get you in a little bit of trouble.
Most of all, however, you have a heart of gold.
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Thanks Again! — THE 4-VARIABLE BUFFY PERSONALITY TEST
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