Ephesians 5:5&6 “For of this you can be sure: No immoral, impure or greedy person – such a man is an idolater – has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God. Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of such things God’s wrath comes on those who are disobedient.”
I feel honoured at the opportunity of speaking on these words. I wonder how often have I preached on the wrath of God in the past 40 years? Not nearly often enough I judge. Am I being faithful to the Lord who put me in the ministry? Do I know the terror of the Lord? Yes. Then am I persuading men? Who is intimidating me from speaking on hell? No one in this congregation, but a huge disapproving glare comes from the professing church. Let me not delay. The King’s business requires haste. Where shall we start?
1. THERE ARE SOLEMN WARNINGS OF GOD’S WRATH IN THE BIBLE.
These words of Paul contain not one but two warnings. Shouldn’t the Bible be an encouraging book? Shouldn’t our sermons be comforting? Why are there all these warnings in the Scriptures? Who wants such stuff? No one probably, but we may be missing the point. As Edward Donnelly says, “I don’t want to be wakened at three o’clock in the morning by someone bellowing ‘Fire!’ outside my bedroom window. I don’t want to jump out of a warm bed, bang my leg on a chair in the darkness, scramble into a dressing-gown, rouse the whole family and stand with them in a cold street. If, on doing so, I were to discover that I’d been the victim of a practical joke, I’d be considerably annoyed and would think it a piece of irresponsible foolishness. If, however, I saw flames engulfing part of my house, I’d be grateful to whoever had awakened me from sleep and saved our lives. The issue wouldn’t be the loud voice, the inconvenient hour, the frightening words or the upset and the tension. The question would be, rather, was the warning true? If so, then the louder the shouting the better. Warnings are unpleasant and, usually, unwelcome. But, based on reality, they are loving and beneficial. We need them and should profit from them” (Edward Donnelly, “Heaven and Hell,” Banner of Truth, Edinburgh, 2001, p.30).
The warnings of God in Scripture are all about frightful realities, and we are given them to prepare to avoid the danger. You see the first warning here relates to this fact; God and Christ have a kingdom (v.5), their sphere of total influence. In other words, over the people who are members of this kingdom the Father, Son and Spirit have exclusive control. God actually chooses those who are the citizens of his kingdom. None but the people to whom he gives a new birth – a regeneration that originates in him – can enter that kingdom, and he will change everyone who is in this kingdom. The Father, Son and Spirit all work together to provide for, protect and keep everybody under this reign of grace. What a wonderful inheritance the members of this kingdom have. All their needs are gloriously met; all grace is always abounding to them; nothing separates them from the love of the Triune God; all things work together for their good. These are the benefits of being under the reign of divine grace.
Now the first warning tells us this, that “No immoral, impure or greedy person – such a man is an idolater – has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God” (v.5). In other words, not all mankind is in this kingdom; it is for a particular constituency. Now I don’t have to explain the adjectives Paul uses, do I? You know what an immoral person is don’t you, and an impure person, and a greedy person? You know what an idolater is. God has given us his law in which he describes immorality, impurity and greed – physical, sexual, financial greed. In the ten commandments God our mighty Creator says we are to have no other gods but him; we are not to make an idol out of anything and live for that; we are not to take God’s name in vain; we are to keep one day as God’s day each week; we are to honour our parents; we are not to be engaged in acts of violence; we are not to commit sexual sin; we are not to steal or lie; we are not to covet what is someone else’s but be content with what God has given us. To defy what God says and please ourselves is the way to become an immoral and impure and greedy and idolatrous person. There is no possibility, the Bible says, of such a person having a place in the kingdom of Christ and God. The new birth which gives them the entry also effectually changes each members of the kingdom. To underline that Paul adds, “You can be sure of this” (v.5). You can bank on it. You can stake your life and eternity on it. What Scripture says is true. The peril is very clear. The boundaries to this kingdom are patrolled by the Godhead. The godless can never sneak in, while all who are admitted never desire to leave. So how do you judge yourself? In the light of the truth of what the Bible says here do you have any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God?
“There is a city bright
Closed are its gates to sin
Naught that defileth
Naught that defileth
Can ever enter in.” (Mary Anne S. Deck, 1813-1902)
The second warning intensifies our danger – remember, you need pay no attention if these words are not true – but this is what they say, that because of men’s disobedience to the ten commandments – seen in immorality, impurity, greed and idolatry – God’s wrath comes upon them. “No it doesn’t,” someone shouts out. “No, no, no” he continues to protest, “that is simply scaremongering.” Paul replies, “Let no one deceive you with empty words” (v.6). That man who shouted out – not in the church service, but in your head and in your thinking during this moment, as I’m speaking to you these words, urging you not to listen, to disregard all I’m saying – that man who just spoke to you spoke “empty words.” He did so in order to deceive you. The apostle is speaking full, resounding, true, eternal words.
So here we have two warnings, the first about the exclusive nature of those who are the inhabitants of kingdom of God and Christ, that all who are sinful are banned from it. They have no place in it at all, rather, in the second place, upon all such people the wrath of God comes. Have you heard the warning? Are you going to act upon the warning?
2. WHY WE BELIEVE THESE WARNINGS OF GOD’S WRATH TO BE TRUE.
I could begin by making a good appeal to logic, or to your conscience, or to common sense. For example, do you admire people who have no clear sense of right and wrong? There is this national concern about poverty in Africa and it is pointed out that there are a number of nations in Africa run by dictators who through their corruption and greed have plunged their fellow citizens into decades of relentless suffering. Are you indifferent to that? Again a book was published this week which describes the evil of China’s Chairman Mao. It is conservatively estimated that 70 million people lost their lives through his actions and policies. What would you think of someone who said, “I am not going to pass judgment on despots and the consequences of what they do”? Such a man thinks of the pain of Africa and China and he dares to shrug his shoulders at the men who have caused it. You would consider such a man to be a moral pigmy; his opinions would be worthless. You would say that he had no heart and no conscience.
How would you evaluate a man who said about an unrepentant murderer of children, that he remained his best friend, and he wasn’t going to pass judgment on him? Would you say, “What a kindhearted man?” No, you would be sickened by such insensitivity. Here is a man who is a spectator of scenes of unmentionable horror and he is indifferent. We would despise such an attitude. So it is with God; how could we respect a god who made no moral judgments whatsoever between sacrificial self-giving love and lives of utter selfishness?
There was a 19th century American preacher called R.L.Dabney who said he personally knew two people, one was a woman who followed and served Jesus Christ all her life, loving people, giving herself tirelessly to help them. She suffered much pain, and bore it all meekly without a word of complaint. Her last months were hard going. Dabney also knew another person, a violent self-centred criminal who actually killed another man and got away with it. He lived solely for himself and ruined the lives of all he touched. He lived a long, happy and healthy life. Both these people died at the same time; they entered the presence of God at the same moment, and stood together before his great white throne. Do you think God opened the door of heaven to welcome them both? If that is the case, if that is the justice of God, then he is more to be feared than chance, or the devil himself. To believe that our eternities are in the hands of a God who shrugs in indifference at how men and women behave is more horrible that living on the thin crust of a volcano. What sort of God would treat good and evil in the same way? If God could look at wickedness and say, “Nothing really matters,” as Queen sing, “Nothing is of any concern to me,” God says, “Just forget it! Welcome into my heaven!” Saying such things he would no longer be God; he is no longer light; he is no longer love; he is a monster. So I could appeal to your conscience and your common sense to underline the fact that these warnings of our text are true. But I want to appeal to a higher authority than your conscience because we know of the possibility that the light that is in us can be darkness. There is the conscience of the cannibal; he kills and eats men out of conscience.
So let us appeal to the Lord Jesus Christ. What did he say about these words of Paul that the wrath of God is coming on the disobedient?
Jesus spoke of the day when he would separate all mankind into two categories, sheep and goats. After welcoming the sheep into his presence he has a very different judgment on the goats, and they “will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’ He will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’ Then they will go away to eternal punishment,” (Matt. 25:44-46). The Lord Jesus tells us that the wrath of God coming on those who are disobedient is experienced in their departure into “eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels” (Matt. 25:41). Of that fire Jesus spoke often, using for it the word ‘gehenna’, the Greek form of Ge Hinnom, “Valley of Hinnom.” This was an area outside the wall of Jerusalem where children had once been offered as burnt sacrifices to Molech (2 Chr. 28:3; 33:6), and which had become the city’s incinerator area where the garbage and the discarded corpses of those without families were dumped and daily burned. The smell, the filth, the rats and hyenas and vultures, the flames, the whole aura of death in the place became a fitting symbol of hell, the cosmic incinerator, and Jesus himself used the picture. In the Sermon on the Mount we find Jesus saying to his own professed disciples that anyone calling his brother a ‘fool’ – displaying malicious contempt – “will be in danger of the fire of hell”. In Matthew 18:9 he refers again to the fire: “If your hand or your foot causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life maimed or crippled than to have two hands or two feet and be thrown into eternal fire. And if your eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into the fire of hell” (Matt. 18:8-9).
In another version of this same kind of teaching in the ninth chapter of Mark’s gospel Jesus speaks of a person with two hands going into “hell, where the fire never goes out” and of a person with two eyes being “thrown into hell, where their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched” (Mark 9:43, 48). Then there is Jesus’ picture of tares and bad fish being finally taken out of the kingdom and thrown into “the fiery furnace [literally, ‘the furnace of the fire’], where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matt. 13:42, 50). Then do you remember Jesus calling his disciples to be courageous as he sends them out on a mission: “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matt. 10:28). ‘Destroy’ in that verse is the ordinary word for wrecking and ruining something, so making it useless for its intended purpose. The one to be feared, said Jesus, is not the devil, but the one whom Jesus called the destroying God.
What does all this add up to? It is this, that Paul’s Lord, our own gentle Jesus, meek and mild, also spoke of the coming wrath of God. He often said that there is a future place of outer darkness, unquenchable fire, undying worms, and total despair for all who are not in his kingdom. To enter it – or be thrown into it – Jesus used both terms – brings unqualified distress (“weeping and gnashing of teeth”): the people who are there have no inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God.
So Paul’s teaching is identical with the Lord he loved and served, except that Jesus spoke far more vividly about God’s wrath than his apostle, but Paul and Christ never contradict one another on this theme. The picture they both paint of hell is unimaginably dreadful, and worth any labour and any price to avoid. I’m asking you, shouldn’t the Son of God know what he is talking about? Shouldn’t he have some authority in teaching us about our futures?
So when Paul speaks words like those of our text there is not a membrane separating him from Christ. He says elsewhere “when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven in blazing fire with his powerful angels. He will punish those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. They will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the majesty of his power on the day he comes to be glorified in his holy people and to be marveled at among all those who have believed” ( 2 Thess. 1:7-10). In the book of Revelation there are many other graphic warnings. So we believe these words are absolutely true. The God who knows what sin merits far better than you or I has told us these things through his dear Son Jesus Christ whom he sent into the world, and also through the apostle Paul whom Christ sent into the world.
The message of hell is that sin is really terrifying. It is the worst thing imaginable. God’s glory is around us day and night; his voice in conscience can never be silenced, and yet men cry no, no, no, no. Every time the clock ticks men are saying no to our God. Sin is so serious because it is an action done against our good and long-suffering God. Let me use this illustration. I am digging the garden and I cut a worm in half with my spade. I am sorry for the creature but it is not such a terrible thing because it is a mere worm. It has some healing mechanism. I am not going to toss and turn in my bed that night and for the next week agonizing over a worm cut in half. But if I saw someone mutilating a cat that would be a different matter. To torture a kitten, and cut it in half is utterly dreadful, and I would try to rescue the cat and I might have nightmares about what I had seen in the next days. But, then, what if I stumbled across people torturing a child? I would be indescribably angry and horrified. I would never, never forget what I had witnessed because this is a different order of being again – this is a sin against a person made in the image of God.
Do you see where I am heading? How serious must an offence against God be? Sin is directed against the Creator in whom we all live and move and have our being. Joseph protested to Potiphar’s wife about her attempted seduction, “How can I do such wickedness and sin against God?” David spoke of his own sin to God saying, “Against Thee, Thee only have I sinned and done this evil in Thy sight” (Psa. 51:4). How dreadful is it to sin against God? Immeasurably appalling, so that God’s response is to eternally judge sin. Its condemnation never ends.
You ask, “Is that fair? Doesn’t such a punishment far exceed the crime?” I can answer that question by this illustration: I could steal a person’s life savings over ten years. I could kill a woman with a bullet in a second. I will remain in prison far longer for the one second murder than for the ten-yearlong stealing. The amount of time the sin took is irrelevant to the enormous guilt involved in murder. I am saying to you that every sin, even a shout like “Crucify him!” has an eternal dimension because sin is against God and he is the infinite one. We are not talking about a one-off act of folly for which a person may carry years of regret, we are dealing with a pervasive steady lifetime attitude of contempt towards God.
What fear of God can come upon a nation where many of its inhabitants, though they are not yet Christians, know that they are living in a moral universe. The church is living up to its calling to be that society’s light. The citizens know in their hearts that they and all men face a day of judgment, the fearful expectation of meeting a God they have defied, whose laws they have broken, a Holy Lord who is able and willing to condemn them. What a restraining fear of God falls on a people who know this, even if they be not converted. I read last week of the execution of a murderer in Boston, Massachusetts, 300 years ago. Before the noose was put around his neck the condemned man spoke to the people who’d gathered to see him die. He looked at the coffin which his own body would soon fill, and he said to the onlookers, “I pray God that I will be a warning to you all. I beg of God, as I am a dying man, who is to appear before him within a few minutes, that you take notice of what I say. Do not turn your back upon the word of God, as I have done. When I’d been at a meeting I would go from that place to commit sin, and to please the lust of the flesh. O, that I might make improvement of this little, little time, before I go hence and be no more. O, let all mind what I’m saying now that I’m going out of this world. O, take warning of me, and beg God to keep you from this sin which has been my ruin.”
How rarely do we meet such a concern today. Why is this? Because false prophets everywhere for 200 years have been crying “Peace! Peace!” Congregations have been told for so long and emphatically that God loves them. Today no one is afraid of the “Man Upstairs” – as they refer to him. One result of this is the emptying of churches, because sinners are not drawn to the figure of a grandfather in his dotage who likes to see the young people enjoying themselves; if God does exist they have nothing to fear in such a being. The wrath of such a God never comes upon them because he’s not angry with anything or anyone.
3. HOW THESE WARNINGS OF GOD’S WRATH MUST BE DECLARED.
The great danger at such times in a sermon on hell, as the biblical material is being relentlessly built up, is for pastors to pause with a kind of halfhearted apology (I tell you it is a psychological device). They speak quietly, with a mock modesty putting a look of concern on their faces. They will say plaintively to the congregation something like this, “I know that this is unpopular theme. I wish I didn’t have to speak on it, but faithfulness to Scripture demands that I make these warnings to you,” and so on.
But clearly that approach is wrong, isn’t it? Why? As a Canadian pastor friend of mine pointed out to me, if the subject of hell is introduced in that way, we are really implying that we are more merciful than the infinite God, more kind, more loving, more gracious, more concerned than he is. But how can I possibly be more gracious than he who sent his only begotten Son to the cross to endure the agonies of hell in the place of sinners? Surely, I am less holy, less just, less righteous, less concerned than he is. There is something very right about divine retribution. What an insult to the Redeemer that men would rather keep their sins than have them pardoned and washed away by his death! They are refusing salvation; they are choosing the broad road to destruction – every day of their lives. God wouldn’t be just if he allowed such ungrateful wretches to disdain the sacrifice he has made of his Son to save them.
Hell is God’s act of retribution. Hell is the stopping of evil in its tracks and the restoration of righteousness in the universe. Retribution means that my own past becomes the decisive factor in my present judgment. What I have sown that I also have reaped. I am getting what I deserve. God is just in what he does, and I have inflicted upon myself my destiny. Listen to the words of Jesus in John 3:17ff, “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son. This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but men loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that his deeds will be exposed.” If you remain rejecting Jesus Christ you will have brought the wrath of God on yourself by how you have lived and by your own disobedience. Many years ago you retreated from Almighty God to your little front room, to your seat before your TV set, to your papers and novels, to your plans for the future, and this has been your place, quite deliberately and defiantly, evening after evening, Sunday after Sunday. “I will not come to God and repent,” you have vowed, and God’s sentence of condemnation upon you merely ratifies the separation which your own engineering has established. “That is what you wanted, and so that is what you got.” I am saying that there is no one in hell who does not choose to be there. There is no one in hell who is longing to be washed in the blood of Christ and be with him. Death made no difference to them. They rejected atonement through Christ in life and they reject it still.
Therefore I must be on the side of God’s great Prophet Jesus Christ, and his apostle Paul and concur totally with their wise and righteous words. I am not apologizing for any of God’s attributes, including the fact that his wrath comes on unrepentant sinners so that they perish forever. David had planned a murder and had made a man’s wife pregnant. David was king. David wrote the 23rd Psalm. He understood the seriousness of his actions and he came to acknowledge that God would be totally just in punishing him for his crimes – “You are proved right when you speak, and justified when you judge” (Ps. 51:4). In the Day of Judgment not one voice will be raised to question God’s fairness in assigning to men their destinies. God will know all about them. God will take every fact into consideration. God will know how they reacted to the gospel of his Son. He can evaluate every act, word, thought and motivation. Nothing about that judgment will be unfair, for shall not the judge of all the earth do right? (Gen.18:25). So I am not embarrassed at this subject, and I don’t want to give that impression for a moment, especially by suggesting, “This is a burdensome message today so I wont preach for very long.” No, we don’t apologize for speaking on these warnings. Someone comes to church for the first time and they hear a message on hell. That is the providence of God. That is why he brought you here, to hear the warning before it is too late. Blessed man! Blessed woman! Somebody has now told you.
Preach it tenderly, we are urged. Of course. But preach everything tenderly. I am not to shout at you for 40 minutes, but neither is my task to soften the severity of hell. That’s another danger, another wrong way of speaking about hell. I am referring to the tendency today to soften the awfulness of hell by suggesting that the wrath of God should be interpreted figuratively, rather than literally. Now it is true that Scripture uses figurative language both in describing hell and heaven. But that does not mean that such language does not reflect reality. What the Bible tells us about heaven is meant to give us an idea of how unimaginably wonderful heaven will be. But the same thing applies to the words and expressions used to describe hell. It will be unimaginably terrible.
“By its very nature a symbol or sign is always less than the reality it represents. The reality behind the symbol is always more. If we are driving along and see a sign on which two or three small children are pictured crossing the road, we know that there is a school nearby. But we do not imagine for a moment that the sign is a complete description of the school. The bread we eat at the Lord’s table is a sign and seal of Jesus Christ. It is a marvellous symbol, speaking of the means of life, of humble faith, of personal receiving. But our Lord is infinitely more than this symbol of his body. So there is no comfort to be found in saying that the language depicting hell is symbolic. That doesn’t make hell any less dreadful. It reminds us, rather, that the reality is worse than the most terrifying of the symbols” (Ted Donnelly op cit, p. 34).
Some people define hell as the place where sinners are separated from God and nothing more than this. The idea is that it is enough to warn sinners that by refusing to repent of sin and believe in Christ, they run the risk of spending eternity alone, but that is what sinners prefer. As R.C. Sproul points out: “A breath of relief is usually heard when someone declares, ‘Hell is a symbol for separation from God.’ To be separated from God for eternity is no great threat to the impenitent person. The ungodly want nothing more than to be separated from God, but their problem in hell won’t be separation from God; the presence of God will be what will torment them. In hell, God will be present in the fullness of his divine wrath. He will be there to exercise his just punishment of the damned. They will know him as an all-consuming fire” (R.C.Sproul, Essential Truths of the Christian Faith, p.286).
Of course I may not gloat over hell. I pray to God that when I think of my worst enemy, a murderer who might have slaughtered my entire family, I won’t chuckle over what fate lies before him. This teaching is traumatic and awesome. Think of the reality of eternal hell for a moment, the wrath of a sin-hating God. Your heart misses a beat. Then I remind myself that hell is the place where justice is done to the glory of God. So I weep, and yet I rejoice too – as I do before the hell of Golgotha where Christ hangs in the anathema of God dying on that cross for me. We feel a passionate sadness for our fellow human beings that they are going there – if Jesus Christ is to be believed. They are on the broad road that leads to destruction, and Jesus who said that wept over them. Paul felt like this about his family and fellow countrymen: “I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were cursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers . . . My heart’s desire and prayer to God for the Israelites is that they may be saved” (Rom. 9:2&3, 10:1).
We are sometimes challenged as not really believing this truth because if we did believe it, our critics say, we would be shouting out to people in the streets, and knocking on every door, and stopping people to tell them all, “Flee from the wrath to come!” I don’t believe that for a moment. I don’t see the Lord Jesus behaving like that. I see him having time to go to weddings, and feasts, and going apart from the crowd at times. If I had only one string on my banjo, one topic of conversation, then you’d rightly dismiss me as a monomaniac. I am interested in all of God’s creation, in politics, and the Internet, and Iraq, and food, and music – I have been listening to Beethoven on and off throughout this week because his entire works have been played on Radio 3. We will not be steamrollered into becoming men of one theme. But for me Jesus can say nothing wrong whatever he spoke on, and I will tell you what he says, and as my method is to go through the Bible, I believe I will speak to you in Scriptural proportion. There is much more to the Bible than its teaching on hell; it is a revelation of grace, but God’s wrath is here before us today; it is the theme of our text. Listen again to Ephesians 5, verses 5 and 6 “For of this you can be sure: No immoral, impure or greedy person – such a man is an idolater – has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God. Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of such things God’s wrath comes on those who are disobedient.”
It is coming now; it is revealed now from heaven towards all that is evil. God loves you as someone made in his image, and God is angry with you for your sins. The wrath of God is directed towards sinners from heaven’s throne of justice at this very moment. Not our fitful anger and frustration, but God’s personal, righteous, constant hostility to evil; his settled refusal to compromise with it, and his resolution to condemn it. It is God’s retribution that all the disobedient will finally encounter. “Depart from me” says Jesus, in other words, “Depart from my love, my offers of mercy, my longsuffering, my goodness to you, from those places where two or three gather in my name and I am there,” departing from all that and going to hell where saving love does not exist.
Of course hell is still a place where God is to be found. If I made my bed in hell I’d find God to be my bedfellow. How so? Ted Donnelly helps us to understand: “The explanation is quite simple. Geographical distance has little to do with either closeness or separation. One of my best friends lives on the west coast of America, nearly seven thousand miles from my home. We are rarely able to spend time together, on three or four occasions perhaps in the past ten years. Yet, outside my family, there is no-one to whom I feel closer. We keep in touch, pray for each other, would turn instinctively to one another in a crisis. Whenever we do meet, we can pick up our friendship without dropping a beat. In spite of the distance between us, that is real intimacy.
“On the other hand, I can remember all too vividly a married couple whom my wife and I counselled some years ago. Throughout the evening we spent talking in their home they sat beside one another, separated by only a few inches. Yet there might as well have been a continent between them. A deteriorating marriage had pushed them apart and their tense body language screamed mutual alienation. So corroded had the relationship become that the very presence of one was unbearably irritating to the other. They hated being together. Proximity was torture. We could sense what a relief it would be when we left and they could escape each other’s company. Close? No, tragically and painfully distant.
“This is what it means to be separated from God. It is a startling thought that everyone will spend eternity in God’s immediate presence. But, when we think about it, this is the reality. God, who will be the heaven of one person, will be the hell of another. The damned are separated from God’s grace and love and mercy. It is indeed true that between heaven and hell a great gulf is fixed. Yet God is close to those in hell, because he is present there in his anger. Hell is where God pours out his wrath on the condemned, not just in initial judgment, but for ever, personally and actively. Those who are in hell will see God in his holy fury. They will be compelled to gaze at their Judge, unable to shut their eyes. The sight of him, intolerably painful, will be their condemnation and their punishment” (Edward Donnelly, op cit, pp. 40&41).
“How can you stand living when you believe this teaching?” some ask us because they imagine themselves to be so loving and tender-hearted. We will tell you; by making a wholehearted commitment to the spread of the gospel, by becoming all things to all men so that we may save some, by living as much like Christ as grace enables us. We live in the knowledge that some of those we love may be lost by this reality, by praying for them, and, when they give us an opportunity, speaking to them, and when the reminder of hell touches our consciences we are stirred up by it with stronger evangelistic concern for all who are like them.
“But how can you live with this teaching?” we are asked again. By spending our lives showing gratitude for the saving grace of Christ which delivers us from the hell we richly deserve. By looking unto Jesus, fixing our minds on heaven where soon God’s grace will take a company of people more than any man can number. The world is going to be saved, though some will be lost. There will be a new heavens and a new earth – though there will be a place of woe outside.
“How, though, do you live with this teaching?” some of you say. By not speculating about it. I refuse to give my imagination free rein and dwell on the lost in hell and raise questions concerning which God gives me no answers now. I know that that can be a way to unbelief. Dante went too far in his poetic description of the Inferno, and Hieronymus Bosch went far too far in his paintings of hell. There is a book of James Joyce in which he invents two sermons preached by a Jesuit on the physical and mental sufferings of hell, written in two long chapters in brilliant prose, going into those subjects in fearful detail. I guess his purpose in writing such lurid word pictures was to sicken all his readers into concluding, “I can’t believe in a place like this. Who could believe in such a terrible place?” Do you understand my point? Joyce and the others horrify us by their erotic speculations. They go far beyond what Jesus said. The devil will either make you ignore what our Lord says or he will take you to another extreme and exhaust you by an obsession about it. “You are too young to think about hell,” he is saying to some of you, but he’ll supply another excuse to ignore the wrath of God when you are older. I am saying that the Lord Jesus Christ believed it and taught it. He was the proper man; the most contented and self-integrated and strong and loving man this world has seen, and we all want to be like him, and that means believing what sustained him.
4. THE CROSS PREACHES TO US THE WAY OF DELIVERANCE FROM HELL.
There is little of the gospel in our text except the reality of the kingdom of Christ and God. Listen again to it, Ephesians 5:5&6 “For of this you can be sure: No immoral, impure or greedy person – such a man is an idolater – has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God. Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of such things God’s wrath comes on those who are disobedient.” Little good news there. The law of God is telling us how and how not to live. It is warning us of the judgment that will come upon us when we are disobedient. Let me say that there are three ways to fulfil the law:
either I do it in my own person here and now;
or I shall suffer for ever in hell for disobeying God’s law;
or I believe in Another and receive him into my own life – Jesus Christ who has both obeyed the commandments and suffered the judgment of the law on my behalf.
What is Golgotha? Why did the holy Son of God die? It is the wrath of God coming on the obedient one. Why should God treat the only obedient one in that way? Because he has taken the place of the disobedient ones; many, many of the immoral, the impure, the greedy and the idolatrous have had their sins imputed to Christ the Lamb of God. He is the one who has been dealt with as they deserve, and so Christ in his love for them has removed God’s wrath from them. When they entrust themselves to him they are saved from hell and they take their place in the inheritance of the kingdom of God and Christ.
The gospel is a most simple and plain message. It is the history of God’s persistent mercy towards sinners who have been determined to keep him out of their lives for ever. He sent his Son Jesus Christ to be born of the Virgin Mary. The God-man was born under the law and kept it all his life so fulfilling all the righteousness that God himself can demand. When he was put to death he quenched all the flames of hell that would devour the people for whom he died. When we entrust ourselves to him his salvation becomes ours; we become the blessed members of his eternal and glorious kingdom.
Last year a man came home to find his wife reading a religious book for the first time in her life. She looked up at him and said to him, “If this book is true you are going to hell.” He took those words with enormous seriousness and set out ‘looking for Jesus.’ What do I mean? He left the home on Saturdays and looked for a church where he could find someone to tell him about Jesus, but all the churches were closed. He finally went on a Sunday and came across the church in London where my friend Gerard is the pastor, and there he found Jesus, and soon his wife found the Saviour too, and now they are working to bring many others to know Christ too. Have you spent any time looking for Jesus Christ? He is actually the one who searches for us and finds us.
In God’s grace, Jesus, the one who tells us most about hell, is also the one who saves us from it. What more could we ask? The person whom God sent to warn us became the very person who delivers us. That is the beauty and the marvel of God’s warning. He sent the message by the hand of the Deliverer himself. So it is not a gloating, hard, message; it is suffused with love and hope.
You have heard about hell on many occasions. Time and again you have been warned about the day of judgment and God’s wrath coming on the disobedient, but you have never turned to the Saviour who alone can rescue you from that wrath. You haven’t repented of your sins; you haven’t called on Jesus Christ to save you. There have been all these warnings and we say, “It’s been like water off a duck’s back.” What will you say to God? “Lord, we didn’t know?” No, you did know. “Lord, I didn’t believe your Son.” “Wasn’t it clear enough, loving enough, constant enough?” God will ask us. Every mouth will be stopped. “You have insulted the Spirit of grace, and rejected my Son. I have provided mercy for the worst of men who will plead the name of Jesus, but you are pleading only your own worthless names, the names of sinners who deserve justice.” May it not be that. Flee from the wrath to come. Flee to Christ the Ark before the deluge descends; flee to Christ the City of Refuge before the man-slayer arrives; flee to Christ the Rock of Ages before rocks and mountains fall on us.
12th June 2005 GEOFF THOMAS