God’s Wrath as Loving Consent

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This post is part of a series of articles in which I “show my cards” on my theological positions. In this post I want to consider the biblical concept of wrath; what wrath means, how it can be said that God is a God of wrath, and the implications therein.

What I want to argue here is that when the Bible uses the term wrath, it uses it as an anthropomorphism to describe the divine consent to man’s determination to continue in his own sin. Put more simply, wrath is not a passion of God, (like a man who bursts into fits of anger) but is rather God’s sorrowful “yes” to man’s final “no” to him. It is a subset of love, because love allows man to say “yes” or “no” to the divine love. Should man set his face toward sin, even upon the greatest of persuasion by the grace of the Holy Spirit, God will release him and allow sin to destroy him. He does this in great sorrow, because God loves all mankind and desires that they be saved. But he refuses to force or coerce love, for the very nature of love is to allow freedom of choice.

I want to argue this in three steps: First, I want to establish a biblical definition of wrath from foundational theological principles and from Romans 1. Second, I’ll provide examples of wrath from famous biblical stories that support my view of wrath. Lastly, I want to consider the cross in connection to this definition of wrath.

First, defining wrath. As I said above, I take wrath to mean God’s consent to sin and self-destruction. God is decisive but passive and passionless in this process. The reason for this is because, theologically speaking, God is impassible, unchangeable, simple. Put another way, God does not experience change. He does not get impassioned. He is the same yesterday, today and forever. Thus God cannot become angry in the human sense. Wrath must thus an anthropomorphism, something we attribute to God to understand him from our human experience.

Another important theological principle to consider is the fact that God is love, as 1 John 4:8 tells us. He is not wrath. He is not anger. He isn’t even mercy. God is love. Augustine tells us rightly that the Trinity informs our view of God as love. God is a community of Lover, Beloved, and Love. Within God there is a life of perfect love and self-sacrifice. God the Father begets the Son, and the Son responds with eucharistia to God the Father, and the Spirit binds the two together. God’s essence is thus love. Thus, when we talk about wrath, it must be placed within the context of Trinitarian love; any action he takes on behalf of the world must be subsumed under that love.

OK, now to Romans 1, a key text on wrath. Paul tells us in Romans 1 that “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). Ungodly men know that God exists, Paul tells us, and yet they replace him by worshipping created things rather than Creator (v. 23). For this reason, God reveals his wrath to them. But, the question is: what does his wrath look like? We are told by Paul that God’s wrath looks like a divine-giving-up. Paul tells us three times that “God gave them up” (v. 24, 26, 28) to their passions and sins. And this giving up is the “due penalty for their error” (v. 27).

Thus for Paul, wrath is not passionate, angry venting. It is not violent. It is rather a divine-giving-up. Or, put another way, it is a divine consent to sin. Brad Jersak explains:

[I]n the Bible, where we see or hear of God’s wrath, we are usually, actually seeing God’s nonviolent consent to the natural and supernatural forces of the world and of human freedom. God’s wrath is consent to allowing, and not sparing, the powerful consequences of these forces to take their course

[I]n Romans 1 (picking up from Isa. 64:5–7), Paul clarifies: what had been described in the narrative metaphorically as a seemingly active wrath is in fact the ‘giving over’ (God’s consent) of rebellious people to their own self-destructive trajectories—even when the shrapnel of our actions accrues collateral damage on innocents! When in Romans 5 we read that God in Christ was saving us from ‘the wrath,’ we are not to believe that Jesus is saving us from God, but from the consequences of sin (death, according to Rom. 6:23) imbedded in the very order of the universe. (source)

Wrath is thus “God’s nonviolent consent” to man’s willful sinful choices. In consenting to man’s sin, he is also permitting the consequences of sin to destroy us. Wrath is not the “retribution of a willful God, but [is rather] a metaphor for the consequences of God’s consent to our self-will and non-consent” to him (ibid, above). Thus all the consequences of sin in the Bible are not coerced by God. Rather, they are consented to.

But why does he do this? Because God is love. Love, if it is to be love, must be freely given and freely received. God recklessly creates man free so that man may freely return love to him. Hans Urs von Balthasar calls this gift of freedom a kenosis (self-denial) of the Godhead; a giving up of his own autonomous freedom to dependent beings so that they may respond in free love to Him:

It is possible to call this creation, together with the covenant associated with it—in Noah, and more patently in Abraham and Moses—a new “kenosis” on God’s part, since he is thereby restricted, implicitly by creaturely freedom and explicitly by the covenant with its stated terms. …[H]uman freedom [thus] participates in the divine autonomy, both when it says Yes and when it says No. (von Balthasar, Hans Urs. Theo-Drama: Theological Dramatic Theory, Vol. 4: The Action. Kindle Locations 4925-4930)

Balthasar concludes, “man’s refusal is possible because of the trinitarian ‘recklessness’ of divine love, which, in its self-giving, observed no limits and had no regard for itself” (ibid, kindle 4941-4942).

Moving on to my second point, I want to consider a few OT stories. Because at this point we must still ask: what about the places in the Bible where it seems like God “pours out” his wrath? What about the stories where God seems very angry?

Brad Jersak again explains:

What of God’s active wrath? Did God not slaughter Egypt’s firstborn (Exod. 12)? Did God not massacre the Jewish grumblers in the wilderness (Num. 26)? Did God not incinerate Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen. 19) or repeatedly reduce Jerusalem to smoking rubble (Jer. 52)? Did God not strike down Ananias and Sapphira at Peter’s feet (Acts 5) or eat Herod alive with worms (Acts 12:23)?

No. And Yes.

First, no. Were these acts of violent intervention by an angry and punitive God who was reacting to sin? No. The causes of death are ascribed to ‘the Destroyer,’ to angelic or human agents of violence, or to Satan (Exod. 12:23; Gen. 19:13; Jer. 4:7; 1 Cor. 10:9–10; Acts 5:3). God protects or ceases to harbour potential victims, depending on someone’s consent (or not) through repentance, surrender, or intercession (cf. Abraham in Gen. 18, or Moses in Exod. 33).

Second, yes. These were acts of God’s wrath in that God consented to allow natural and supernatural destruction to take its course through events set in motion by human decisions. In that sense, we read that God is seen to have ‘sent’ the destroyer and ‘sent’ the destruction—God is perceived as commissioning the destruction or even as the destroyer (Exod. 12:29; Gen. 19:14; Num. 21:6). (ibid, source above)

A first picturesque example of Jersak’s definition of wrath and divine consent is the story of Israel’s exile. Ezekiel connects the exile with the glory of the Lord leaving the temple (Ezekiel 10-11). The Shekinah cloud which had guided Israel out of bondage to Egypt, which had brought them to the Promised Land, which had overshadowed the mercy seat, which had been Israel’s crowning glory, had departed. And why did God’s glory leave the temple? It is because Israel had committed gross idolatry and mingled with the nations such that God could no longer dwell there. They had made themselves unclean. Thus, the covering left; and it was this divine-leaving that signaled Israel’s militaristic defeat and dispersion into the nations. God, in other words, was Israel’s protector. His presence and glory kept them in tact. But now that the glory had left, Israel’s protection was gone, and she was subsequently defeated and captured.

A second example is the story of the fall. The early church fathers understood Israel’s exile to be a micro-story of the entire cosmos. The earth was created to be filled with the glory of God as the temple was filled by the cloud. When God created Adam and Eve, he breathed his Spirit into them, and filled them with the divine-life; or put another way, he filled them with the Shekinah cloud and sustained them by his power. Adam was tasked as priest and king with spreading the glory of God over the world, offering to God the entire creation in eucharistia. Thus all of creation was created to participate in the Trinitarian life, created to be YHWH’s earth-temple. When Adam sinned, God’s glory left his earth-temple, and the entire world was left desolate and corrupt, left to die and descend into nothingness apart from the energizing glory of God. Mankind, even the entire cosmos, “fell” from the divine life and was left alone in its finitude.

One last example is the flood. The flood was obviously a judgment of God. God saw that the world was unclean with sin, and could not bare it any longer. However, the normal way people envision the flood story is that God forced the clouds to rain for days upon end. It is my contention that the flood story is better understood as God’s removal of his divine hand of protection from the world, and allowing the world to collapse into itself. Often overlooked, Genesis 7:11 tells us, “In the six hundredth year of Noah’s life, in the second month, on the seventeenth day of the month, on that day all the fountains of the great deep burst forth, and the windows of the heavens were opened.” Genesis 8:2 says that in order to stop the flood, he “closed” the gates of the deep and the windows of the heaven. What does this mean?

We can understand by looking at the creation narrative in Genesis 1:6ff. Within the biblical account of creation, it is said on day two that God separated the waters from the sky and the earth, and placed a “firmament” between the two. Ancient near Eastern peoples understood there to be a solid dome-like structure holding the waters in heaven from destroying the earth, and the solid ground to be holding the waters from gushing upwards (source); and the flood was understood to be a removal of those guards, allowing the earth to collapse in on itself. The point here is not to critique Ancient near Eastern world views, and even more importantly, to fit our modern view of science into this story. The point rather is to say that the flood story is about God removing his hand of protection from the earth, allowing his creation to become formless and void again, allowing it to become what it was before he shaped and ordered the universe. The cosmos, without God’s help, will collapse into nothingness. And had not God preserved Noah and his family, there would be nothing left!

So then, these stories demonstrate wrath as divine consent; as God removing his hand and allowing sin to do what sin does: corrupt, destroy, kill, envelop in on itself. He does this reluctantly and with sorrow, but it must be done. He allows the “no” of man’s sin to have its effect. Hell then must be understood as the final “no” to God. It is life without God. It is the eternal sorrow of having at last outrun God. It is living autonomously, without the divine life and love, collapsing in on the self forever and ever.

Now, as we end, on to the atonement. To continue from my last post, given this biblical definition of wrath, we may say in a qualified sense that Jesus experienced wrath. Christ lovingly, voluntarily, entered into our fallen state and into the effects of death by the incarnation, and was consequently cut off from life at the cross. The Father is said to have given up “his only begotten Son” (John 3:16) to the powers of this age; and he did not intervene to save him (as he did when Abraham was about to sacrifice his only son). He removed his hand of protection and allowed his Son to be enveloped by the deluge of sin and evil; he allowed his Son to experience Israel’s exile; he allowed his Son experience the full corruption and death of the adamic state of affairs. He became a curse for us and with us; he completely united himself to our sufferings. And, if you wish to call that penal substitution, well, then OK.

But — and this must be emphasized — even though we may say that Jesus experienced wrath, we may not say that the Father was ever against the Son, or that the Father vented his anger on the Son. In fact, even while the Son experienced this divine-giving-up by the Father, the Father was with him by the Holy Spirit; and pleased with him, rejoicing in the cross-event. And why? Because in the cross, Christ gave himself in an act of selfless love; of love for man and for God, and in so doing, fulfilled the whole of the law. This made the Father exceedingly glad because in giving himself in love, Christ was embodying, fulfilling, completing the Torah. His self-sacrifice of love was what the Torah demanded, and subsequently what merited our salvation! It was the obedience and love that the Father always wanted!

In fact — and this is important — while the world was against Christ, murdering him, hating him, finding him guilty, the Father saw in him justice and goodness and perfect agape love because of his solidarity with our death. And because of that very justice and righteousness and innocence, the Father is said to have pronounced him innocent and just, and thus vindicated and raised him up in glory. The resurrection means principally that the Father pronounced a verdict of innocent, and in pronouncing this innocence, the Father delivered him from death. Taken a level deeper, by our union with Christ, we are said to participate in Christ’s vindication and resurrection. This is how Christ is said to have merited our salvation.

In this paradoxical way, the cross is both a place of divine-giving-up and a divine-filling-up. In the cross Christ at once united himself with our death and filled our death with his love. In my next post I will consider the doctrine of theosis from the fathers.

 

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What is Hell? (sermon)

 

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Icon of the Resurrection. The picture is of Christ defeating death, and liberating the OT saints from the realm of death. My favorite icon

Here’s another audio from a series I’m going through with some of my students about tough questions of the faith. This questions considers hell, what it is, what happens to people who go there.

 

Summary:

God created the world to be his temple. He designed it so that His presence would dwell here on earth (think of the Lord’s Prayer: “Your kingdom come…on earth as it is in heaven”). When Adam sinned, God’s presence left his earth-temple, and chaos and death enslaved humanity, turning earth into a type of hell.

But God so loved the world, that he sent his Son; in Christ, God came into our condition to reclaim earth as his holy temple. In his death, Christ swallowed up the power of sin and death into himself, and in his resurrection, Christ defeated the power of hell by rising in power over it. Christ brought God’s life back into the world.

Nonetheless, humans must say “yes” and freely enter into this new life. For those who do, they are resurrected with Christ; made new; given eternal life. However, for those who don’t, they are left to live for all of eternity “outside of the city”, outside of God’s life, in the misery of their sin. This is hell. Living outside of God’s life.

What happens to people who live on their own terms, outside of God’s life? It’s a mystery, but they live in a state of aloneness, death, corruption, self-destruction, left to their own self.

 

Adam, Sin, and Romans 5:12

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There has been much debate throughout church history over the meaning of Paul’s Adam-Christ parallel in Romans 5:12-21. What exactly is Paul trying to convey in comparing the two? There are some who propose that Paul is simply making a point through rhetoric, that Adam’s actions and Christ’s are similar, but there is no real link between the two. Others say that Adam is parallel to Christ in a very real and significant way. Just as Christ is head over those under the New Covenant, so Adam was head over those under another covenant; a covenant which affected not only Adam, but all who were under his headship.

The question is, who is correct? I am Reformed, and believe it is clear in Romans 5 that Paul is speaking of Adam as a covenant head over humanity. Reformed theologians look to Romans 5:12 specifically to prove their point. Paul says: “Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned”. They would say, death spread to all men, because Adam’s sin was imputed to them, thus making all sinners worthy of death. Adam, as our covenantal representative, impacted us in such a way, that we all died spiritually as a result, being found guilty.

Others deny this interpretation of verse 12. They would point out that death spread to these men, not because of Adam’s sin, but because of their own sins. In other words, they died because they made themselves guilty. 

However, this does not seem to be the flow of the passage. Paul says further in Romans 5:19-20 that “through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners”. In other words, Adam’s disobedience made many sinners. This verse again points to Adam as being responsible for all of humanity’s guilt.

Herman Ridderbos agrees. He says of this passage:

The meaning of this much discussed pronouncement [in Romans 5:12], if one takes into consideration the whole context of Romans 5, in our opinion cannot be in doubt. One man has given sin access into the world; he has, as it were, opened the gate of the world to sin. So sin has entered in, here represented as personified power (v. 21); through and with sin, death has come in as the inseparable follower and companion of sin. The words then follow: “an so [i.e. along this way opened by the one man] death has passed unto all men, for the reason that all sinned”. The final words give final explanation as to how death, through one man, has passed and could pass unto all men. This happened because “all sinned”, namely, on account of their connection with the one man; therefore Adam’s sin was the sin of all, and in that sense it can hold for them that they all sinned. This union of all with and in the one is, as we have already seen, the governing idea of this pericope, and it is in that idea that Paul indicates the typical significance of Adam with respect to [Christ].

Many wish to understand the words, “for the reason that all have sinned”, as referring to the later personal sins of all. This is impossible, however, for more than one reason. First of all, even the words “and so death passed to all” point to the entering in of and granting of passage to sin and death into the world through the one man. Were one to understand the concluding words of verse 12 of the personal sins of all, then this passage of death would rest once again on the sins of all, and “and so” would lose its exclusive reference to what precedes. That this is not the meaning of the text appears from the following considerations:

(a) From the argumentation of verses 13 and 14, Paul appeals here to the period before the giving of the law, because the death of men then living cannot be explained from the “own”, person sin, but must have had its cause in the sin of Adam. There was sin then, too: “for until the law [came] there was sin in the world”. The sanction of the law (death) did not as yet apply, however. For where there is no law, there is also no transgression (cf. 4:15), and “sin is not imputed when there is no law”. Nevertheless, at the time also, death reigned over those who did not transgress in the same manner as Adam, that is, who were not confronted in the same manner as Adam with the divine command and the sanction on it. It is thus apparent that it was not their personal sin, but Adam’s sin and their share in it, that was the cause of their death. The final words of verse 12b cannot thus be understood otherwise than in this corporate sense.

(b)  That in the sin of all (v. 12) it is not a matter of personal sins of Adam’s descendants but of one, fixed, first transgression that was the sin of all by virtue of their relation to the first Adam is also unmistakably apparent in the sequel. Paul speaks here repeatedly of the one transgression or the transgression of one, which resulted in the death of all:

…for if by the trespass of the one the many died (v. 15)

…for the judgment led upon the ground of one [trespass] to condemnation (v. 16)

…for if by the trespass of the one death came to reign (v. 17)

…as by the trespass of one it came to condemnation for all men (v. 18)

[It is obvious then the passage speaks of] the sentence (of death) that the one sin of Adam brought on all men, because they are all included in the sin and in the death of the one. In bringing judgment on all by his sin, Adam is also the type of the Coming One, as is evident in all the parallel statement mentioned [in the passage].

Roger Olson, James White, and the Problem of Old Testament Ethics

So a couple days ago I posted a critique of a recent debate over Calvinism vs Arminianism: Old Debate, New Day: Calvinism.

I ended my critique by pointing out that one of the debaters from the Arminian side, Brian Zahnd, clearly denied the inerrancy of the Bible, and therefore read his view of Christ into the scriptures. He denies the inerrancy especially of the Old Testament, because of it’s violent history. And of course, a violent God is in no way congruent with his idea of a peaceful Jesus. 

Recently, James White brought up this same problem with another theologian named Roger Olson. While I like much of Olson’s books, especially on church history, I think White hit the nail on the head. Olson denies inerrancy, and therefore denies much of the Old Testament’s “terror texts” (as he calls them, referring to violent texts he perceives God would never condone). It is the same issue I saw in Brian Zahnd, to a tee. White calls it a new form of Marcionism (which he will define).

Listen to White’s commentary below from 40:30 on (keep in mind, White can be colorful!)…

 

Old Debate, New Day: Calvinism – My Thoughts

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So recently, there was a debate between two Calvinists and two Arminians about the subject of predestination and God’s role in salvation.

The Calvinist debaters were Daniel Montgomery, pastor a Sojourn Church in KY, and Timothy Paul Jones, a professor at Southern Seminary. They recently published a book together called PROOF, which was a rehashing of the TULIP acronym. I read the book, and would encourage anyone to read it.

The Arminian debaters were Austin Fischer, recent author of Young, Restless, No Longer Reformed. His partner was an odd fellow I had never heard of named Brian Zahnd. I have followed Fischer for quite some time, and have been fascinated by his very quick transition from Calvinism into a liberal type of Arminianism, following the likes of Roger Olson et al.

You can watch the debate here:

I will give a commentary about the debates below the video links

Strengths on each side?

I want to start by commenting on the strengths of each side, then the weaknesses. First, the Calvinist side clearly used much more biblical texts to back up their claims than their opponents. I mean, it was ridiculous how much scripture Daniel Montgomery brought into his arguments. Timothy Paul Jones did entire expositions of texts. This encouraged me, being a Calvinist myself. It was encouraging to see each of them not only mentioning texts, but also explaining and interpreting them for us.

However, the Arminian side had some strengths too; though they had less scripture, the Arminians had better rhetoric and responses. What I mean is that both Fischer and Zahnd were able to respond to and critique the Calvinist side in a very persuasive manner (of course, persuasion doesn’t make you right — but it helps!). Contrastly, the Calvinist side didn’t really respond much. Instead, they mainly posited their positions. And for a debate, you have to be able to critique, pick apart, and see the arguments behind the arguments.

Weaknesses on each side?

As I said above, I thought the Calvinist side should have responded and critiqued the Arminian side much more than they did. There were several times when Fischer would contradict himself, or say something wrong, which the Calvinists never picked up on. For instance, Fischer asserted that none of the early church fathers were Calvinistic. This is a sore overstatement. The theological nuance of the early church fathers is still debated today. However, neither Montgomery nor Jones critiqued Fischer for that. Also, Fischer asserted that the only way Calvinists can believe that God is both good and completely sovereign is to ascribe mystery to the doctrines instead of explaining how they work. However, when Fischer described his doctrine of synergism, he repeatedly said it was a mystery, and never completely explained it! This, to me, was a sore misstep for Fischer. But, the Calvinist side never picked up on that either. I think Montgomery and Jones should have been much more critical of both Zahnd and Fischer.

The biggest weakness I saw on the Arminian side was the lack of scripture used in their arguments. What I mean is that they never really explained any biblical texts in depth. They may have spouted out a few texts here and there, but they never really considered the meaning or the context. For instance, Fischer started the first video by denying pretty harshly that God decreed or predestined anything. But for all the time he argued against predestination, he rarely brought in scripture. Also, when Zahnd began critiquing the idea of predestination, he insisted that the doctrine was inconsistent with “the revelation of God in Jesus Christ”. To him, Jesus’ teaching, life and death, (all those red letters … getting it?) was a more sure word then the Bible (in fact, he pitted the Bible against Jesus, which Jesus himself never did). Soon into the debate, it became obvious that Zahnd either questioned or denied the infallibility of the scriptures. Of course, I do want to recognize, Fischer did quote some texts here and there, especially during his synergism explanation. But he never really got deep into the texts. It’s easy enough to spout out a few verses that sound like they support your position. It’s altogether different to do an exposition of those verses, which the Calvinist side did a few times.

The bottom line: who won?

Here’s the issue with a debate like this. At the end of the day, the Calvinists (with whom I agree) held to the biblical inerrancy of scripture. And because of this, they argued not only from the red letters, but also in the rest of the Bible. And so they brought in a myriad of texts which supported the idea that predestination was in fact true. They brought in texts from the Old Testament, New Testament, epistles, and so on. They brought the whole gambit. And for that, they had a doctrine that really was supported by all of scripture. In the end, the Bible was their primary source.

However, from the Arminian side, it became more and more apparent that the Bible was a secondary source for them. For them, the true and trustworthy source was “the revelation of God in Jesus Christ”. Over and over, you would hear, “The God of Calvinism is incongruent with God as revealed in Jesus Christ”. However, and here’s my rub with the Arminians, they never really dug into the texts to support this idea. They never in-depth scriptural support, especially from the Old Testament, that the God as revealed in Jesus Christ was Arminian. Instead, they imported their own understanding of Christ into the Bible. They never considered texts like John 6, 8, 10, 17, and others, in which Jesus himself teaches predestination. They never considered the fact that Jesus came to do the will of his Father in heaven (Jn 6:38), which presupposes that Jesus came to accomplish a predestined redemption. The Arminians never brought these texts up. They couldn’t. Instead, they continued to repeat, “the God as revealed in Jesus Christ is incongruent with Calvinism”. To me, that really weakened their arguments. And it’s because their understanding of Jesus came first, and the Bible second.

Brian Zahnd says this much in a very eye-opening post, in which he says outright,

“The Old Testament is the inspired telling of the story of Israel coming to know their God. Along the way assumptions were made and they didn’t get everything right. Keep reading the Bible until you come to Jesus and then center your reading of all Scripture in the light of Christ”.

Do you see what he’s saying? It’s subtle, but here’s what he’s saying: If the Old Testament disagrees with your understanding of Jesus, reject it; it’s not reliable. Because after all, Israel made some bad “assumptions” along the way that we now know are wrong. Zahnd rejects the infallibility of the scriptures, and that affects his theology, including his theology of Christ and salvation. He imports an understanding of Jesus into the scriptures, picks and chooses what he likes from the Bible, and forms a theology from that. This is not healthy exegesis. Just in case you don’t believe me, here’s another post by Zahnd where he allows his understanding of Christ to lead to an utter denial of substitutionary atonement.

It’s pretty obvious to me that the Calvinist side won, no problem. If you don’t use the Bible to form your doctrine, your doctrine will always inform the way you read your Bible. What’s at stake in this entire debate is the Bible, not simply Calvinism or Arminianism. And I’ll side with the Bible all day long.

Judicial Abandonment: What we all Deserve

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RC Sproul, in his commentary on Romans, speaks on what he calls “judicial abandonment” from Romans 1:18-32. It is an explanation of just exactly how God justly judges people. 

Sproul says, 

Three times in this section [of Romans 1:18-32] we read about human beings being given up by God. They are given up to their vile passions, the lust of the flesh, and their reprobate mind. When God judges people according to the standard of his righteousness, he is declaring that he will not strive with mankind forever. We hear all the time about God’s infinite mercy. I cringe when I hear it. God’s mercy is infinite insofar as it is mercy bestowed upon us by a Being who is infinite, but when the term infinite is used to describe his mercy rather than his person, I have problems with it because the Bible makes very clear that there is a limit to God’s mercy. There is a limit to his grace, and he is determined not to pour out his mercy on impenitent people forever. There is a time, as the Old Testament repeatedly reports, particularly in the book of the prophet Jeremiah, that God stops being gracious with people, and he gives them over to sin. 

The worst thing that can happen to sinners is to be allowed to go on sinning without any divine restraints. At the end of the New Testament, in the book of Revelation when the description of the last judgment is set forth, God says, “He who is unjust, let him be unjust still; he who is filthy, let him be filthy still” (Rev 22:11). God gives people over to what they want. He abandons them to their sinful impulses and removes his restraints, saying in essence, “If you want to sin, go ahead and sin.” This is what theologians call “judicial abandonment”. God, in dispensing judgment, abandons the impenitent sinner forever. 

Here in Romans… since by nature we repress the truth, God delivers us to our sin…

Romans is unapologetic about this concept of judicial abandonment, arguing that it is right and just for God to abandon sinners to the desires and lusts of their sin, thus allowing them to run, not walk, to hell. God’s grace is removed, and the flood gates are opened, so to speak. Without this divine restraint, as Sproul tells it, we as sinners will forever love our sin more than God, and choose hell without exception. And Paul tells us in Romans, it is right for God to do this. It is God’s righteous judgment on wicked. 

Given this context, grace is a special gift of God, above and apart from what we actually deserve. When God saves sinners in Christ, he is bypassing what we actually deserve, and instead gives Christ the abandonment. He gives Christ the wrath. And he turns our hearts to him. This is the context of the gospel. And Paul wants us to make sure that although hell should be and would be something we all go to, God chooses to save some. 

For more on this, you can read more on the nature of hell and condemnation here.

The Paradox of Sin

barbed wire

In the latter half of Romans 1, Paul presents a very intriguing argument for the universal depravity of man. He states that God has provided the gospel to those who believe (Rom 1:16), because the wrath of God is revealed against all men for their ungodliness and unrighteousness (Rom 1:18). In other words, because we are so sinful and wicked, God has provided a means for salvation. If he had not, his wrath would remain forever upon us.

In Romans 1:18-32, Paul draws out the nature of this wickedness that merits God’s wrath. It’s very interesting to see the paradoxical manner in which he describes our sin. 

First, Paul says that our sin is willful and knowing rebellion against God. In Romans 1:20-21, Paul says that though we know that God exists, we willingly and purposefully rebel against him. He also tells us in Romans 1:32 that we know that those who act wickedly deserve God’s wrath. So sin, in this vein, is a meditated choice to rebel against God.

But while Paul does describe sin as willful rebellion, in this very same passage, he also describes our sin as uncontrollable “lusts” brought on by our “hearts of impurity”, “dishonorable passions” and “debased minds” (Rom 1:24, 26, 28). Paul finishes by saying that if God left us in our sin, our sinful desires would enslave us, ultimately sending us to hell. So in this sense then, though we willfully disobey God (Rom 1:20-21), we are also uncontrollably bound in sin. Our sinful desires so control us that we become “filled with all manner of unrighteousness” (Rom 1:29). 

In this way, sin is both something we choose, and something that controls us. Sin is both high-handed and willful rebellion, and all at the same time, a slave master who causes us to sin. 

Edward Welch comments on this truth, saying,

In sin, we are both hopelessly out of control and shrewdly calculating; victimized yet responsible. All sin is simultaneously pitiable slavery and overt rebelliousness or selfishness. This is a paradox to be sure, but one that is the very essence of all sinful habits. If  you deny the out-of-control nature of [sin], as some Christians have done, then you assume that everyone would have the power to change himself. Change would be easy. You would simply say, “Stop it. You got yourself into it, and you can get yourself out”. There would never be a sense of helplessness or a desperate need for both redemption and power through Jesus. So this cannot be our position. 

At the same time, there will be other problems if you ignore the in-control, purposeful nature of [sin]. [Sinners] will be quick to place blame outside themselves. They are left with no way to understand their guilt. The redemptive work of Christ is replaced by an emphasis on “healing” that is not rooted in the grace of forgiveness.¹ 

For Welch then, sin must be personal and purposeful, and enslaving and controlling. And certainly, it is biblical. We are slaves to our sin (John 8:44). Yet, our sin is not divorced from our will. We choose to disobey. We want to disobey (Joshua 24:15).

More than this, though, God addresses our confusing sin problem with a complex gospel. In Christ, God provides an atonement through which all of our individual, chosen sins can be forgiven. But also, by the work of the Holy Spirit, God washes us through regeneration, replacing our sinful heart with a new heart able and willing to obey God. No longer do we have to obey the taskmaster of sin, but we are empowered to obey God afresh. And no longer do we have a record stained with sin, but a clean one filled up with Christ’s righteousness. 

We have a paradoxical sin problem. But we also have a multi-faceted gospel solution. And we can be made new in Christ.

¹ Addictions: A Banquet in the Grave, Edward Welch