How many movies have you watched recently in which hell was considered a possible destiny for the departed? Probably not many. And when was the last time you heard a radio or TV preacher say that on the cross Christ endured the wrath of God? Probably a long time ago. Although a majority of Americans believe in hell, they don’t like to think of people actually going there. And preachers don’t talk about hell or Christ suffering its penalty as they used to. This article will explore two themes in Romans that cut across the grain of popular thinking: hell, and Christ’s death turning away God’s wrath. And it will suggest ways that God intended for these neglected themes to impact our thinking and lives today.
Hell and the “Wrath of God” Being “Revealed” (Rom. 1:18)
“That doesn’t make any sense!” This first reaction to Paul’s words in Romans 1:18 is understandable. After all, the two preceding verses announce that the theme of his letter will be the gospel, the good news of salvation. But the next verse does not bring good news: “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth” (Rom. 1:18). Why does the apostle proceed as he does? He is beginning a long section of his letter (1:18-3:20) in which he brings the world to its knees before a God who is completely free from sin. To use Martin Luther’s expression, Paul begins in Romans 1:18 to preach “the bad news” in order to show sinners their need for God’s good news.
God’s truth challenges current cultural norms. Isn’t God too nice to be angry with human beings? Isn’t he a Santa Claus in the sky who winks when his bad children displease him? Many have made a god in their image, a domesticated god who will not disturb or punish them. There is only one problem with such a view-it is unbiblical! There is a God in heaven who has revealed himself to us in a book, of which Paul’s letter to the Romans is a vital part. God’s wisdom tells us to adjust our minds, emotions, and wills to his message in Romans instead of making our own designer religion. Such a religion is comfortable, but it also is idolatrous, and idolatry is the very reason why God is so angry at humankind (Rom. 1:22-25).
God is angry? Although it disturbs modern and postmodern sensibilities, it is God’s truth. Paul has not driven the train off of the track in Romans 1:18. Rather, his declaration of the bad news in 1:18-3:20 reflects his fatherly compassion for both Jews and Gentiles. He tells the bad news so that people might understand and believe the good news. Until we see our sins for what they are in the sight of a holy God-filthy, stinking, revolting-we will not see the need to ask him for mercy. And his grace shines brightly, because before and after the bad news he announces the good news. He declares the gospel as “the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes” in Romans 1:16 and in 3:21-22 returns to that theme: “But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law… the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe.”
A good way of contrasting current thoughts concerning the Last Judgment with God’s thoughts is to consider the beginning of Romans 3. Enemies maligned Paul’s gospel of grace: “Why not do evil that good may come?” (3:8). They claimed that Paul taught, “If our unrighteousness serves to show the righteousness of God, what shall we say? That God is unrighteous to inflict wrath on us?” (v. 5). Remarkably the apostle simply replies, “By no means! For then how could God judge the world?” (v. 6). Paul assumes that a holy God will call sinners to account for their sins. How contrary to our culture which bombards us with the idea that a loving God must accept uncritically all human beings and never condemn anyone.
Such thinking never entered Paul’s mind because it was steeped in the Old Testament, which repeatedly affirms that God will judge the world in righteousness. I will select one text each from the Law, Writings, and Prophets as illustrative of many other passages:
For the Lord your God is a consuming fire, a jealous God. (Deut. 4:24; cf. Gen. 18:25; Exod. 24:17)
The Lord… comes to judge the earth. He will judge the world with righteousness, and the peoples with equity. (Ps. 98:9; cf. Ps. 9:7-8; 58:11; 82:8; 96:13; Ecc. 3:17)
For behold, the Lord will come in fire, and his chariots like the whirlwind, to render his anger in fury, and his rebuke with flames of fire. For by fire will the Lord enter into judgment, and by his sword, with all flesh. (Isa. 66:15-16; 2:10-21; Joel 3:12-15)
Other New Testament authors echo Paul’s words: there will be a Last Judgment where God will grant his people everlasting joy and condemn the wicked to everlasting hell (Matt. 25:31-46; Mark 9:42-48; Luke 16:19-31; John 5:28-29; Acts 17:31; Heb. 6:1-2; Jude 7, 13; Rev. 20:14-15; 21:8; 22:15). The Bible’s emphasis on hell prompts a question: What is the most important purpose of the Last Judgment? The most common answer is to assign eternal destinies to human beings. While that is an important purpose of the Last Judgment, it is not the most important purpose. What could be more important than God’s sending his creatures to eternal life or eternal punishment? The glory of God. The most important purpose of the Last Judgment, and of everything else, is that God would be glorified. At the Last Judgment, God’s glory will be revealed to all human beings and angels. Although our age misleads by downplaying hell and God’s wrath, these themes loom large in Scripture. Why? Because God looms large in Scripture. He is the beginning, the middle, and the end; the Creator, sustainer, and consummator (Rom. 11:36). And Scripture, especially the Book of Revelation, declares that God will be glorified in various aspects of his character in his judgments:
His justice, holiness, and wrath: “Just are you, O Holy One, who is and who was, for you brought these judgments. For they have shed the blood of saints and prophets, and you have given them blood to drink. It is what they deserve!” (Rev. 16:5-6).
His power and wrath: “We give thanks to you, Lord God Almighty, who is and who was, for you have taken your great power and begun to reign. The nations raged, but your wrath came, and the time for the dead to be judged, and for rewarding your servants, the prophets and saints, and those who fear your name, both small and great, and for destroying the destroyers of the earth” (Rev. 11:17-18).
His glory and power: At the preparation for the pouring out of “seven golden bowls full of the wrath of God … the sanctuary was filled with smoke from the glory of God and from his power” (Rev. 15:7-8).
paragraph>MR: Since it was possible His majesty: “Then I saw a great white throne and him who was seated on it. From his presence earth and sky fled away, and no place was found for them. And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne” (Rev. 20:11-12).
It is precisely within this framework of God’s character revealed in his judgments that he announces to hypocrites in Romans 2:5: “But because of your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed.” A day is coming, the Last Judgment, when God’s wrath and just judgment will be made known to the universe. On that day we will see how little God-centered our thinking really has been, for we will see him as he is, God Almighty, the great Redeemer and Judge, the One worthy of eternal praise for his character, words, and deeds.
When our thinking becomes as God-centered as that of Scripture’s, we reject as wrongheaded the common question, How can a loving God condemn anyone? We need read only three chapters of the Bible or three chapters of Romans to understand that a loving and holy God could justly condemn all of us. Instead, we ask a better question: How can a loving and holy God save any sinful persons without compromising his moral integrity? The answer to that question is found in Romans 3:25-26 and its teaching concerning Christ’s propitiation.
Christ’s Propitiation Turns Away God’s Wrath(Rom. 3:25-26)
Scriptural teaching on Christ’s saving work is massive and magnificent. To attempt to explain it exhaustively, therefore, is overwhelming. To do so would require examining the following (and more): The biblical words for Christ’s saving accomplishment, such as redemption, reconciliation, blood, and atonement.Christ’s threefold office of prophet, priest, and king.Christ’s saving events, including his incarnation, sinless life, death, resurrection, ascension, sitting at God’s right hand, intercession, and return.Biblical pictures of Christ’s saving work, such as victory, legal substitution, recreation, and sacrifice.The different directions to which the cross points.
We will employ the last category and look at Christ’s saving work in directional terms. The cross is directed toward us-to redeem us (Rom. 3:24; Heb. 2:16), toward our enemies-to vanquish them (Col. 2:14; Heb. 2:15), and toward God himself. This idea of the cross being directed toward God was powerfully set forth by the medieval theologian Anselm (around 1033-1109), who portrayed Christ’s death in feudal imagery. God was the Lord of the manor whose honor was offended by Adam’s primal sin. This posed a dilemma for God who chose to save sinners: either punishment or satisfaction. Either God would punish sinners for Adam’s insult of the divine majesty or God’s honor would have to be remedied. God chose the latter course-satisfaction. It was necessary for God to become a human being to remedy the situation. By dying as the God-man he appeased God’s offended honor and earned a surplus of merit that is applied to believing sinners.
The reformers Martin Luther and John Calvin gave the classic expression of Christ’s death as a satisfaction.
There are not several ways to reconcile God, but one way alone. His majesty is much too high to be reconciled by the blood of all the men on earth and the merit of all the angels. The body of Christ is given and his blood poured out, and thereby God is reconciled, for it was given and poured out for you … so that he may avert from us the wrath of God which we by our sins have deserved. And if the wrath is gone then the sins are forgiven. (Luther’s Works 36, p. 177)
As no one can succeed in his accusation when the judge absolves, so there remains no condemnation, when the laws have been satisfied and the penalty already paid. Christ is the One who suffered the punishment due to us, and thereby professed that He took our place in order to deliver us. Anyone, therefore, who desires to condemn us after this must kill Christ Himself again. (Calvin’s Commentary on Romans 8:34)
Luther’s and Calvin’s understanding diverged from that of Anselm in two important ways. First, they did not think in terms of Anselm’s dilemma: either satisfaction or punishment. Rather, they combined the two: satisfaction through punishment. Second, instead of holding that Christ’s death satisfied God’s offended honor, as Anselm taught, they said that Christ’s death satisfied God’s justice.
The reformers appealed to various biblical texts to teach that Christ’s death satisfied God’s justice, especially those four that present Christ as a propitiation, a sacrifice that turns away God’s wrath: Romans 3:25-26; Hebrews 2:17; 1 John 2:2; and 1 John 4:10. The most important is Romans 3:25-26:
Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.
In 1935, C. H. Dodd, a New Testament scholar, attacked the traditional idea of Christ’s death as propitiating God’s wrath as a pagan notion unworthy of God. He is not a bloodthirsty deity demanding his pound of flesh. Instead, Dodd insisted, Romans 3:25-26 teaches that Christ’s death accomplished expiation, a putting away of sin. Although Dodd’s idea has exerted great influence, Leon Morris and Roger Nicole have shown it to be erroneous.
There are two reasons to hold that Romans 3:25-26 present Christ’s atonement as a propitiation and not merely an expiation. The first is the remote context of the passage. From Romans 1:18-3:20, Paul condemns everyone before a holy God. But, amazingly, he writes in Romans 5:1: “Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” Where did God’s wrath go? Did he simply wink at sin? Because God is morally perfect he cannot wink at sin. Only Christ’s death satisfying God’s justice (Rom. 3:25-26) explains how sinners are at peace with God in Romans 5:1.
The second and most important reason for holding that Romans 3:25-26 presents Christ’s atonement as a propitiation is its immediate context. Paul returns to the theme of his letter (Rom. 1:16-17) in Romans 3:21: “But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law.” God’s saving righteousness has been proclaimed in the apostles’ preaching. This righteousness is “apart from law,” that is, it has nothing to do with human law-keeping. But it fulfills the Old Testament-“the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it.” What Paul stated so clearly in his purpose statement, he now restates: this saving “righteousness of God” is “through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe.” Salvation is not received by deeds, but by faith. Moreover, all need salvation “for there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (vv. 22-23). After the Fall, human beings stand on level ground in the presence of a holy God; they “all have sinned” in Adam and personally fall short of deserving God’s praise on the last day. All are undone.
How does Paul express Christ’s saving accomplishment here? In two ways-as a redemption (v. 24) and a propitiation (v. 25). Paul uses shorthand for redemption, just mentioning the word without developing the idea. If we put together the full New Testament teaching, we learn that redemption has three aspects: 1) a state of bondage to sin, 2) the payment of a ransom-the redemption price, the blood of Christ (1 Pet. 1:19; Rev. 5:9), and 3) the resulting state of liberty.
The idea that Paul does develop, more fully than anywhere in Scripture, is that of propitiation. D.A. Carson correctly states, “There is fairly widespread recognition that the OT background is the ‘mercy seat,’ the cover of the ark of the covenant over which Yahweh appeared on the Day of Atonement and on which sacrificial blood was poured.” How does Paul use the word “propitiation” in Romans 3:25 against its Old Testament background? The answer is as a sacrifice directed toward God that turns away his wrath.
This is best grasped in light of Paul’s distinction between a “former” time (v. 25) and “the present time” (v. 26). He says that “God put forward” Jesus “as a propitiation … to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins” (v. 25). Paul means that in Old Testament times, God with great patience forgave the sins of believing Israelites on the basis of animal sacrifices, while writing moral IOU notes to himself. This is because the blood of those sacrifices did not make atonement for sin in and of themselves. Rather, God forgave Old Testament saints based upon the future work of Christ. But God still had to settle accounts and actually punish sin. This he did in the cross of his beloved Son by putting him “forward as a propitiation by his blood.”
The key to the passage is the relation between Christ’s death and God’s justice or righteousness. Paul says “God put forward” Christ “as a propitiation by his blood … to show God’s righteousness” (v. 25). He repeats: “It was to show his righteousness at the present time” (v. 26). God had a problem (I speak reverently) and it is not what people today assume-how could a loving God condemn anyone? Instead, God’s problem was how to save sinners without compromising his moral integrity. The solution lies in God’s setting forth Christ as a propitiation. The Son endured the wrath of God in order to maintain God’s justice in forgiving sinners. In this way he was “just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus” (v. 26).
Far from projecting the idea of a bloodthirsty God, Paul depicts a loving and holy God, bearing the brunt of his own wrath in order to save his people. Furthermore, C. H. Dodd made a false dichotomy because Christ’s death both propitiates God’s wrath and expiates sins.
Although believing in eternal hell and that Christ’s death satisfied God’s wrath are not popular today, they are the plain teaching of Holy Scripture. Belief in the former moves us to pray for lost persons. And by God’s grace our concern for their deliverance from hell can outweigh our reluctance to share the (bad and) good news with them. Belief in the latter fills us with gratitude towards the One who loved us and gave himself for us, enduring God’s wrath to save us from eternal loss. And it gives us confidence because if Christ suffered condemnation for us, then we will not have to suffer it ourselves. Praise his holy name!