If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” (Romans 12:18-19)
There are two themes here – one is widely loved; the other is widely loathed. The one that is widely loved is peace. The one that is widely loathed is wrath.
Yet here these two, peace and wrath, stand not only together, but intertwined in such a way that if we were to ditch the one we would lose the other. God has put these two together because they belong together. Today, I want us to look at these two themes, and then for us to see how God’s wrath relates to our hope of peace.
If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all (Rom. 12:18).
Now here is our clear calling from God: Do everything your power to live peaceably with everyone, no exceptions. Make sure that if there is a barrier to peace, it is not on your side.
Why? Because our Jesus is the Prince of Peace, and as his people…
- We are called to peace (1 Cor. 7:15).
- We are to plan peace (Prov. 12:20). Consider strategies most likely to promote peace.
- We are to seek peace and pursue it (1 Pet. 3:11). It may be a long way off.
- We are to strive for peace (Heb. 12:14). We may have to work hard to get it.
- We are to guard peace: “Maintain the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph. 4:3).
- We are to pray for peace: “for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way” (1 Tim. 2:2).
Notice what the verse says: “If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all” (Rom. 12:18). The words “if possible” clearly indicate that there will be some situations in life where peace is not possible – times when you have done everything that you reasonably could and you are faced with a conflict that you simply cannot resolve.
King David faced this in his own family when his son Absalom rebelled against him. It broke David’s heart (see Psalm 55). David wanted peace with his son but Absalom had no interest in reconciliation.
The Bible is God’s Word for real life in this fallen world. It is not a book of ideals for some other world. God speaks to our life in this world as it is, a world in which we see the face of evil in hatred, violence, injustice, and abuse. “Live peaceably with all.” But how are you to live peaceably with someone who may want to kill or destroy or abuse you? I want you to see what comes after verse 18 and why they belong together.
Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written,
“Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord” (Rom. 12:19).
As peace is a truth widely loved, wrath is a truth widely loathed. Many in the history of the church has been embarrassed by God’s wrath and have wanted to revise this biblical truth.
There is nothing new or modern about this. As early as the 2nd century, Tertullian spoke of revisionists who said that “A better god has been discovered, one who is neither offended nor angry nor inflicts punishment, who has no fire warming up in hell, and no outer darkness wherein there is shuddering and gnashing of teeth: he is merely kind.”
The same instinct was seen recently in a story about the hymn “In Christ Alone,” that surprisingly produced articles in the Washington Post and the Economist! The hymn includes these lines:
Till on that cross as Jesus died
The wrath of God was satisfied.
One major denomination in the United States wanted to include this hymn in their new hymn book but they wanted to change the words to read:
Till on that cross as Jesus died
The love of God was magnified.
This is wonderfully true – the love of God was poured out at the cross. “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8).
We often sing about the love of God. But the reason the cross is such a marvelous outpouring of the love of God is that, at the cross, God actually dealt with the most fundamental human problem. Here’s how he did it:
On the cross as Jesus died
The wrath of God was satisfied.
This theme of the wrath (or anger) of God toward sin and toward sinners is clearly and widely taught in the Bible. And this truth is so interwoven with the hope of our peace with one another and with God that if we lose our grasp on the one, we lose our hope of the other. This is critical for the peace of any person, family, school, community or nation.
I want to offer a definition and six observations about the wrath of God. The wrath of God is, according to John Stott, “His steady, unrelenting, unremitting, uncompromising antagonism to evil in all its forms and manifestations.” J. I. Packer says that the wrath of God is: “God’s resolute action in punishing sin”
1. The anger of God is not like our anger.
When we speak about the wrath of God, remember that it is the wrath of God. So everything that we know about God – that he is just, that he is love, and that he is good needs to be poured into our understanding of his wrath.
The words ‘anger’ and ‘wrath’ make us think about our own experience of these things. You may have suffered because of someone who is habitually angry, a person who loses his temper, sees red, flies into a rage, blows a fuse. Our anger can often be unpredictable, it can be petty and it can be disproportionate.
Although these things are often true of human anger, none of them are true of the anger of God. God’s wrath is the just and measured response of his holiness towards evil.
2. God’s wrath is provoked.
Do not forget how you provoked the LORD your God to wrath in the wilderness (Deut. 9:7).
This kind of language is used repeatedly in the Bible. The anger of God is not something that resides in him by nature. It is a response to evil. It is provoked.
There is a very important difference between God’s anger and his love. The Bible says, “God is love.” That is his nature. God’s love is not provoked. God does not love us because he sees some wisdom, beauty, or goodness in us. The reason that God loves us lies in his nature, not in ours. He loves you because he loves you, and you can never get beyond that (Deut. 7:7).
But God’s wrath is different. God’s wrath is his holy response to the intrusion of evil into his world. If there was no sin in the world, there would be no wrath in God. So the Bible’s teaching about the wrath of God is very different from the ancient mythologies, ideas of gods who run around frustrated and fuming. That is not what the wrath of God is like at all. God’s anger is his settled resolve that evil will not stand. Thank God for that!
It has often been pointed out that the opposite of love is not hate – it is indifference. What hope would we have in a world stalked by terror if God merely looked on with a weak smile, or even with a disapproving frown? Hope for a world whose history is strewn with evil and violence, lies in a God who is relentlessly opposed to all evil, and who has the power, the capacity, and the will to destroy it.
3. God is slow to anger.
The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love (Psa. 103:8).
These things are repeated over and over in the Old Testament, as if they were the most important things you needed to know about him.
Why does God allow evil to continue in the world? Why does he not come back now and wipe it out? “The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance” (2 Pet. 3:9).
God holds out the offer of grace and forgiveness in Jesus Christ. People are coming to him in faith and repentance every day and God patiently holds the door of grace open. The day of God’s wrath will come, but God is not in a hurry to bring it, because then the door of grace will be closed.
4. God’s wrath is revealed now.
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).
When you read on in Romans 1, you find that sinners go in one of three directions. They suppress the truth about God, they exchange the truth for a lie, and they worship created things rather than the Creator. How does God reveal his wrath when sinners do these things? God gives them up.
- Therefore, God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity (Rom. 1:24).
- For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions (Rom. 1:26).
- God gave them up to a debased mind (Rom. 1:28).
One writer states, “Paul is not teaching that one day God will punish Roman civilization for its vice and decadence. On the contrary, the vice and decadence are themselves God’s punishment… Their punishment was their greed, envy, strife, deceit, violence and faithlessness.”
When we see the moral fabric of our culture being torn, then as Christian believers we should cry to God for mercy. We should say, on the basis of Romans 1: “Lord, what we see around us is a sign of your wrath. In judgment, remember mercy and please, O Lord, do not give us up completely.”
5. God’s wrath is stored up.
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 (Rom. 2:5).
The whole Bible story leads up to a day when God will deal with all evil fully, finally and forever. On that day, God’s judgment will be fully revealed. This will be the day of wrath, that is the day when God will recompense every evil and bring to judgment every sin.
God will do this in perfect justice. No one will be indicted on a single sin that they did not commit. The punishment for every sin will match the crime. When the judgment is done, every mouth will be stopped, because everyone will know that he judged in righteousness and with justice. Then God will usher in a new heaven and a new earth which will be the home of righteousness.
6. God’s wrath is on sinners.
Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him (John 3:36).
John does not say, “The wrath of God will come on [the disobedient].” He says, “The wrath of God remains on him.” It is already there. Why is it already there? By nature we are children of wrath (Eph. 2:3). It is the state in which we were born.
Here we stand face to face with the human problem at its core. If you ask, “What, at the end of the day, is the greatest human problem?” It is not that we are lost and need to find our way on a spiritual journey. It is not that we are wounded and need to be healed. At the core of the human problem is that we are sinners under the judgment of God, and the divine wrath hangs over us, unless and until it is taken away.
God’s Wrath and Our Peace with Others
If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord” (Rom. 12:18-19).
How striking it is that when God calls us to peace, he speaks about his own wrath and vengeance. Notice there are three things that you need to know in order to have peace and to bring peace.
1. There will be retribution.
“Vengeance is mine, I will repay,” says the Lord (Rom. 12:19).
God has established governing authorities in this world to administer justice. Paul speaks about this just a few verses later. Speaking of one who rules, Paul says, “He is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer” (Rom. 13:4).
God has established authorities in every home, in every school, in every workplace, in every church, in every community, and in every nation. Those who are given this authority are responsible for the work of recompensing evil that is necessary to maintaining peace. They “carry out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer.”
The basis of order in any home, community, or nation lies in the wrath of God. God is irreconcilably opposed to all evil. He will bring it to judgment. Therefore, he establishes governing authorities to deal with evil justly.
It is on this basis that parents exercise discipline in the home, and without this there will not be much peace. If parents stop believing in the wrath of God, they will find it difficult to discover another basis for discipline in the home.
The principle for the administration of this justice is clearly given in the well-known words of Scripture, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” There is a quip on this that is often attributed to Ghandi: “An eye for an eye leads to the whole world going blind.”
But this saying is based on a misunderstanding. When God says, “An eye for an eye,” it’s about proportionality. The justice must fit the crime. The proper administration of justice is necessary to the maintenance of peace. Remember this: God never punishes to the full extent of his strength, and neither should a parent.
When God says, “An eye for an eye,” he does not say it to individuals. God gives this directive to judges, and to others in authority. God does not say, “If someone smashes your window, go and smash theirs.” That would be a formula for anarchy, in which the whole world would soon go blind. That leads us to the next thing…
2. You are not to take retribution yourself.
Beloved, never avenge yourselves (Rom. 12:19).
The word ‘beloved’ is significant here. It communicates how deep the pain of evil and injustice is, and how strong the impulse to seek revenge can be. With a great sensitivity of heart to the pain, Paul says, ‘beloved,’ or dearly loved ones – never avenge yourselves.
God has given this responsibility to the governing authorities in this world, not to you. This is still true, even when governing authorities are far from what God calls them to be. What about crimes that are never solved? Injustices that are never dealt with? Evils that are never brought to light? What about the times when there is a miscarriage of justice?
3. Place the unresolved injustice into the hands of God.
Leave it to the wrath of God (Rom. 12:19).
If people stop believing in the wrath of God two things will happen: The first is that courts will be overrun with endless disputes, which is where we are in our country. When people cannot get what they want from the courts, they will feel that they must take the law into their own hands, and there goes your peace.
The Scripture says, “That is never your job! Don’t take it into your own hands. Leave it in the hands of God. Do not say, ‘I will repay evil’; wait for the Lord, and he will deliver you” (Prov. 20:22).
What injustice do you need to trust into the hands of God today? What evil have you suffered that has never been brought to justice? When you do this, you are following in the path of Jesus.
Jesus knows all about this – there was no justice for him in this world. He stood before a judge who said, “What is truth?” What chance of justice do you have when the judge isn’t even sure that there is such a thing as truth? Before the chief priests, Jesus was blindfolded, spit on, and struck while he was in what was supposed to be a court of law (Mark 14:65).
What did Christ do when he faced this injustice? He continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly (1 Pet. 2:23). “Father, I know that every evil will be dealt with, and it will be dealt with by you. Every wicked deed will be brought to justice. You have said so, and you yourself will do it!”
The truth of God’s wrath, the assurance that one day there will be justice, and that God himself will bring it, is the basis on which we can exercise restraint, even in the painful situations where we cannot get justice now.
If people lose sight of the wrath of God, if they believe that the only justice they can get is in this world, they will feel that they must take matters into their own hands, and then the world will look in vain for peace.
God’s Wrath and Our Peace with Him
Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God (Rom. 5:9).
Here we come to the greatest thing you can know about the wrath of God. The Bible speaks about it being poured out at the cross: “I will soon pour out my wrath upon you, and spend my anger against you” (Ezek. 7:8).
The wrath of God toward sin can be poured out, and when it is poured out it is spent, it is exhausted, it is finished, it is gone. John Stott says: “The ‘pouring out’ and the ‘spending’ go together, for what is poured out cannot be gathered again and what is spent is finished.”
This takes us to the heart of what happened at the cross. The divine wrath toward sin was poured out on Jesus. He became the ‘propitiation’ for our sins (Rom. 3:25), as he became the sacrifice for us. This big word ‘propitiation’ means that the recompense or the payment for our sins was poured out on Jesus at Calvary.
Don’t ever get the idea that God loves you because Christ died for you. No, it’s the other way round. Christ died for you because God loved you! He loved you even when you were the object of his wrath!
God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ (2 Cor. 5:19). God so loved the objects of his wrath that, in Christ, he bore it in himself. God spent the wrath on himself at the cross!
The outpouring of God’s wrath was the greatest act of love this world has ever seen.
We worship at your feet where wrath and mercy meet
And a guilty world is washed in love’s pure stream
For us He was made sin, O help me take it in
Deep wounds of love cry out ‘Father Forgive.’
Man is always trying to be wiser than God, and we have seen that there is the long history of trying to get rid of this theme of the wrath of God. But it’s all over the Bible, so we can’t simply ignore it.
Over the years, there have been continual attempts to give the wrath of God a new interpretation. The motivation is to try and make Christianity more acceptable to people.
One of the most famous of these was a man by the name of C. H. Dodd (a Scotsman, of all things!) who said that the wrath of God is simply a way of describing “an inevitable process of cause and effect in a moral universe.”
That sounds easier to live with doesn’t it? That sounds very reasonable. This is much easier for people to accept. You reap what you sow. Do good and good will come back to you; do bad and bad will come back to you – an inevitable process of cause and effect in a moral universe. It sounds great!
Try telling that to the thief on the cross.
Here is this man who has wasted his life as a thief and now his life is coming to a miserable and painful end. He finds himself next to Jesus, so he says to him, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
If C. H. Dodd was right, our Lord would have to say, “It’s a bit late for that now, my friend. Don’t you realize that there is an inevitable process of cause and effect in a moral universe? You are reaping what you have sown. You’ve been a thief, and you are getting exactly what you deserve.” It’s inevitable.
C. H. Dodd is trying to make Christianity more acceptable, but there is no hope for sinners there. The hope for sinners is that between us and the wrath of God stands the cross of Jesus. Sin was laid on Jesus and the Divine wrath toward it was poured out, spent, and exhausted in the darkness of Calvary. And when it was done, Jesus cried out in a loud voice: “It is finished!”
He took on himself the sins of the thief and that is why he was able to say to that man: “Today, you will be with me in Paradise!” The wrath of God that one day will be poured out on all sin was spent at the cross with regard to all who are in him. Thank God, the wrath can be spent and it has been spent.
God spent it on himself at the cross. Then Christ rose from the dead: And he stands before us today, a living Savior. He holds in his hands, and offers to us, the priceless gift of peace with God. He is ready to forgive your sins and to fill you with his Spirit. He is able to save you from the wrath and to reconcile you to the Father. He has opened the door of heaven and he is able to bring you in.
© Colin S. Smith
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