Talk of God’s wrath is so . . . so fundamentalist. (A pejorative term used of midwesterners who cling to their guns and Bibles!) Well, God’s wrath may not pop up in elitist conversations on the east and west coasts; but Paul writes 63 verses about it in “the greatest letter ever written” (John Piper).
Starting chapter 2, Paul turns to the second slice of humanity facing God’s wrath—not the out-and-out Gentile “dirt bags” of 1:18-32, but the religious Jew. (First century Jews—as those before them—divided humanity in two: Jews and non-Jews (Gentiles).
Many readers of this blog are Christ-believers. Even we—and certainly those who aren’t—should soberly know that apart from Christ, we are, by application, among the people Paul addresses here.
You, the Judge?
You may be saying, “What terrible people you have been talking about!” But you are just as bad, and you have no excuse! When you say they are wicked and should be punished, you are condemning yourself, for you do these very same things. And we know that God, in his justice, will punish anyone who does such things. Do you think that God will judge and condemn others for doing them and not judge you when you do them, too? Don’t you realize how kind, tolerant, and patient God is with you? Or don’t you care? Can’t you see how kind he has been in giving you time to turn from your sin? But no, you won’t listen (2:1-5a, New Living Translation).
Condemn the terrorist-murderer, and you condemn yourself, Paul writes. Oh, you don’t behead an “infidel”. But your anger kills (Jesus, Matthew 5:22). God will justly punish anyone who does such things.
But your life is good. Successful. Pain-free. That means things are good between you and God, right? No, God is being tolerant and patient, withholding his wrath, “giving you time to turn from your sin. But you won’t listen.”
In Paul’s day and view, this was the Jew. In our day, it’s the moral person, probably a God-believer who criticizes the immoral “dirt bags”, but won’t admit his own sins and turn from them. “The religious right.” Before we condemn these folks, let’s see that, apart from God’s grace in Christ, this is us, too.
“So you are storing up terrible punishment for yourself because of your stubbornness in refusing to turn from your sin. For there is going to come a day of judgment when God, the just judge of all the world, will judge all people according to what they have done. He will give eternal life to those who persist in doing what is good, seeking after the glory and honor and immortality that God offers. But he will pour out his anger and wrath on those who live for themselves, who refuse to obey the truth and practice evil deeds. There will be trouble and calamity for everyone who keeps on sinning– for the Jew first and also for the Gentile. But there will be glory and honor and peace from God for all who do good– for the Jew first and also for the Gentile. For God does not show favoritism” (2:5b-11).
“So you are storing up terrible punishment for yourself” is a foreboding image. The Greek word translated “storing up”, thayraurizo, is used of storing up “treasures on earth” or“treasures in heaven” (Matthew 6:19,20). Here, Paul is warning the unrepentant that they are storing up wrath against themselves. In other words, day to day their load of guilt increases and, with it, commensurate wrath. It will fall full weight on the “day of wrath” (2:5).
“For there is going to come a day of judgment”. According to a 2014 Pew Research Center study, 72% of Americans believe in heaven and 58% in hell. I assume, then, that belief in judgment day falls somewhere within those percentages. Surprisingly high. Behind them, I think, lies sociologist Christian Smith’s research that shows “doing good” is the criterion—which is precisely what Paul writes .. .
He “will judge all people according to what they have done.” Specifically, Paul writes, “He will give eternal life to those who persist in doing what is good, seeking after the glory and honor and immortality that God offers. But he will pour out his anger and wrath on those who live for themselves, who refuse to obey the truth and practice evil deeds. There will be trouble and calamity for everyone who keeps on sinning—for the Jew first and also for the Gentile. But there will be glory and honor and peace from God for all who do good—for the Jew first and also for the Gentile. For God does not show favoritism.”
Several comments are in order.
First, Jews would naturally presume they were God’s favorites as God’s called-out people, and therefore not subject to judgment. But Paul will write, “[God] will punish the Jews when they sin . . .For it is not merely knowing the law that brings God’s approval” (212b,13a). The God-believer today presumes he gets a “pass” because he believes in God. But Paul warns God will pour out wrath on them all. Only those who “persist in doing what is good, seeking after the glory and honor and immortality that God offers” will receive “glory and honor and peace from God” on that day.
Second, why will God judge us “according to what [we] have done”? The question is hotly disputed with, as expected, a variety of answers. Some say Paul is contradicting himself (later he declares salvation is exclusively by grace through faith). Others say Paul is writing hypothetically: this is what would happen but for God’s grace in Christ. Still others claim Paul is referring to God judging us for how we’ve lived as those justified by faith. Others argue all humans will be judged according to their works and, of course, all will fall short and face God’s wrath—only those who believe in God’s grace in Christ will be saved.
My view is simple with two parts. First, Paul is focusing not on how we are saved from God’s wrath; he’s focusing on God’s wrath. Therefore, he doesn’t go into detail about salvation from it.
Second, God will judge us according to what we do, because what we do proves what is in our heart. Live for yourself, refuse to obey the truth, practice evil deeds—all is evidence of a heart without grace. Persist in doing good, seek after the glory and honor and immortality God offers—all is evidence of a heart justified and being sanctified through Christ.
God will judge us “according to what [we] have done”, because our acts reveal our heart. Later, Paul will write, “For God has done what the law could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirements of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit” (8:3,4). Therefore, only those “in Christ” can “do good.” Our outside actions reveal what’s inside. So the “works judgment” is finally a heart judgment. Paul omits all that here, because his topic is God’s judgment coming to all.
God the Judge, According to Law
“God will punish the Gentiles when they sin, even though they never had God’s written law. And he will punish the Jews when they sin, for they do have the law. For it is not merely knowing the law that brings God’s approval. Those who obey the law will be declared right in God’s sight. Even when Gentiles, who do not have God’s written law, instinctively follow what the law says, they show that in their hearts they know right from wrong. They demonstrate that God’s law is written within them, for their own consciences either accuse them or tell them they are doing what is right. The day will surely come when God, by Jesus Christ, will judge everyone’s secret life. This is my message” (2:12-16).
Regarding the Jews, Paul explains merely having and knowing the law isn’t enough to escape God’s wrath. God’s approval requires obedience. Then comes this strange notion that some Gentiles “by nature” (that is, as if by a natural action without having the law) do what the law requires, “they show that the work of the law is written on their hearts.” That is, their conscience dictates their actions. Notice, however, Paul isn’t saying that this justifies Gentiles, merely that doing God’s law is necessary to escape God’s just judgment. ” . . . all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (3:23) . And that judgment day will surely come, bringing God’s judgment even on people’s secrets (kuptos—hidden, concealed things).
This text offers no hope; Paul doesn’t intend it to. Wherever we fit into the two great slices of humanity–Jew or Gentile–we are to realize we face God’s wrath of Judgment Day. And whether we have God’s Law or our conscience, we are to know the Day of God’s wrath is coming.
I’m tempted to brush that away with the gospel. Indeed, faith in God’s salvation in Jesus Christ does brush it all away. But I think it best to end with God’s wrath like a dark, foreboding presence waiting in the future. For, too easily we brush it away until it becomes only a gray, unpleasant presence awaiting humanity.
So I finish with a lengthy quote from Jonathan Edwards’ sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God”, followed by a quote from the writer to the Hebrews . .
[The wicked] are now the objects of that very same anger and wrath of God, that is expressed in the torments of hell. And the reason why they do not go down to hell at each moment, is not because God, in whose power they are, is not then very angry with them; as he is with many miserable creatures now tormented in hell, who there feel and bear the fierceness of his wrath. Yea, God is a great deal more angry with great numbers that are now on earth: yea, doubtless, with many that are now in this congregation, who it may be are at ease, than he is with many of those who are now in the flames of hell.
So that it is not because God is unmindful of their wickedness, and does not resent it, that he does not let loose his hand and cut them off. God is not altogether such an one as themselves, though they may imagine him to be so. The wrath of God burns against them, their damnation does not slumber; the pit is prepared, the fire is made ready, the furnace is now hot, ready to receive them; the flames do now rage and glow. The glittering sword is whet, and held over them, and the pit hath opened its mouth under them.
” . . . it is a terrifying thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Hebrews 10:31).