The Good News of a God of Wrath Bringing Sinful People to his Kingdom by the Ministrations of Christ and his Cross
In 1937 theologian H. Richard Niebuhr famously mocked the Christian liberalism of his day summarizing its theology as: “A God without wrath brought men without sin into a Kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a Cross.”
Niebuhr’s assessment doesn’t sound too dissimilar to forms of Christianity common today even in conservative Evangelicalism. One is liable nowadays to hear a message across the ideological spectrum that at least tacitly says something like what Niebuhr describes.
Sociologist Christian Smith recently developed a theory that describes the de facto faith of most Americans as Moralistic Therapeutic Deism (MTD). I know that sounds like a bunch of academic jargon, but bear with me. Here is Smith’s description of MTD in a simple outline:
- A god exists who created and ordered the world and watches over human life on earth.
- God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.
- The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.
- God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when God is needed to resolve a problem.
- Good people go to heaven when they die.
But the Bible does not allow the dogma of MTD or the liberalism Niebuhr illustrates unless one cherry-picks particular passages as more authoritative than others. One simply cannot read the full scope of Scripture and arrive at the conclusions outlined above.
Take Isaiah for example, particularly the first two chapters in our case. Isaiah 1 lays out a case against Jerusalem, Judah, the world, and even the universe. No one is innocent:
Hear, O heavens, and give ear, O earth; for the Lord has spoken: “Children have I reared and brought up, but they have rebelled against me. . . .” Ah, sinful nation, a people laden with iniquity, offspring of evildoers, children who deal corruptly! They have forsaken the Lord, they have despised the Holy One of Israel, they are utterly estranged. (Isa. 1:2, 4)
God is upset. He is holy, and the content of his law is unwavering. He rightly judges; he is the same God of wrath who laid Sodom and Gomorrah to waste: “If the Lord of hosts had not left us a few survivors, we should have been like Sodom, and become like Gomorrah” (Isa. 1:9).
So where is the comfort, Matt? Is Isaiah just fire and brimstone? Well, as Niebuhr makes clear in his statement and as Isaiah spells out later on, we cannot stand before God without the mediations of the suffering servant. This is the excellent news of the Gospel. This is the comfort of the Cross. We don’t have to rely on working our own way into salvation. If we did, I for one would be in trouble.
Yes, God is a God of wrath and judgment. Yes, all people are deeply flawed. But yes, the loving ministrations of Christ deal with all that so we may finally stand as innocent. These are all realities old theologians used to call atonement, justification by faith, and imputed righteousness. These theological concepts make up the story of the Gospel. We have not only Isaiah 1 and 2 but also 40 and 53.
A God without wrath bringing people without sin into a Kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a Cross is no good news at all but empty platitudes. It’s law-lite. It’s moralistic therapeutic deism. It actually requires us to get into heaven based on our own do-gooder merit. It’s therefore cruel.
Thank God though we have the full spectrum of Isaiah 1, 2, 40, 53 and the rest through 66. We have both judgment and love; law and grace; wrath and mercy. And thankfully love, grace, and mercy for us are God’s final words.