Wrath and Mercy – The Doctrine – What should we think about the wrath of God?
by Christopher Love
“For God hath not appointed us unto wrath, but to obtain salvation by our Lord Jesus Christ.”
I Thessalonians 5:9
This text contains in it the immutable decree and unchangeable counsel of God touching mankind. Though all men are made by the same hand, yet they are not appointed to attain the same end by that God who made them. Some are made to be vessels of honor and others are to be vessels of wrath. Some are appointed to be vessels of honor, meant for the Lord Jesus Christ’s use, and others to be “vessels of wrath, fitted for destruction” (Romans 9:22-23). Some, as in my text, are appointed unto wrath, and others to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ; so that all mankind are comprehended under these two ranks. There are but sheep and goats, right-handed men and men of the left hand; there are but some men elected and others reprobated; some appointed unto wrath and others to obtain salvation.
And if there are but these two ways for all flesh, then it behooves us to consider what the counsels of God concerning us may be, whether we are appointed unto wrath or to obtain salvation.
I shall keep you no longer in the preamble of the text. Some are appointed unto wrath. Wrath here is an emphatic word, and comprehends in it all the torments of the damned. And if you ask me why the torments of the damned are here called wrath, the reason is because it is the wrath of God that makes hell to be hell. Hell, if the favor of God could be there, would not be hell, and heaven, could God’s wrath be there, would not be heaven. The loss of God’s favor is the greatest punishment that a man can undergo. The torments of hell are called wrath to intimate to us that the greatest torture the creature can undergo is lying under the wrath of God. The want of the favor of God shall be the complete torture of the damned, and all the torments of the wicked are called by this general expression, “the wrath to come.”
Beloved, the words are not difficult. I shall discourse and handle them under a double consideration: first under a relative consideration, and, second, under an absolute consideration.
First, under a relative consideration, for “God has not appointed us unto wrath.” This word “for” carries a reference to something that goes before in the preceding verse. But let us who are of the day be sober, putting on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation, “for God hath not appointed us unto wrath, but to obtain salvation.” It is as if the apostle should say, “You are not to argue on this manner, that if God has decreed me to be saved I may live as I please. I shall be saved for all that.” Or “If God has decreed me to be damned, I shall be damned, do what I can to the contrary, because I cannot alter God’s decree.” You must not argue thus, says he, “but let us who are of the day be sober, putting on the breastplate of faith and love, for we are not appointed unto wrath.” God’s decrees should not be an encouragement to you to live as you wish, but a spur to provoke you to live in the daily exercise of grace, from whence I note this doctrine.
DOCTRINE: The doctrine of God’s election and reprobation, or appointing some men to glory in heaven and others to be vessels of wrath in hell, is, or ought to be, a special inducement and spur to provoke men to live in the exercise of grace.
This is that which is here laid down by the apostle. And the use that I shall make of it shall be to condemn those indirect inferences that carnal hearts draw from this doctrine of predestination. Thus the Pelagians argue from the decrees of God: “If God has decreed some to be saved and others to be damned, we may then live as we wish, for, let us do what we can, we cannot possibly alter God’s decrees.” And others reason thus: “If God has decreed some to heaven and others to hell, and the decrees of God are unalterable, then let no man fast or pray or perform any holy duties, for if he shall be saved he shall be saved, or if he shall be damned he shall be damned.” Thus they suck poison out of this sweet doctrine of God’s decrees, whereas these should be a motive and incentive to duty. For in the same decree wherein God intends the final estate of any man, He as well intends the means towards that end as the end itself. If God intends to save such a man, in the same decree He likewise intends that that man shall have grace, and use those means and perform those duties that are required in a person who shall be saved. The elect of God are “predestined by God to be conformed to the image of His Son” (Romans 8:29). “God hath before ordained that we should walk in good works” (Ephesians 2:10).
And as God has decreed such a number of men shall be damned, so He has likewise decreed to suffer those men to walk on after the vain imaginations of their own hearts, and to do that which is right in their own eyes that their deserved end may be destruction.
It is a piece of folly from the appointment of the end to infer the refusal or neglect of the means.
I know there are not any of you but would count this a very absurd and irrational consequence should a man argue thus: “God has in His decree unalterably set down how long I shall live, my days are numbered, so long I shall live and no longer, and therefore I will use no means to prolong my life, or recover my health. I will neither eat nor drink, nor use medicine.” This would be a confessed absurdity and madness, for as God has decreed how long you shall live, so He has likewise decreed that you shall use the means that He has appointed to prolong your life.
As it was in the greatest tempestuous storm that Paul and the rest of the men in the ship were in sailing to Rome. “The angel of God told Paul that there should be no loss of any man’s life, but of the ship only” (Acts 27:23-24). Yet in verse 31 Paul tells them that “unless they did all abide in the ship, they could not be saved.” God decreed the means to be used as well as the end. So Hezekiah, in 2 Kings 20:6, when upon his prayer the Lord added fifteen years unto his days, now mark, had it been reasonable in him to conclude thus? “The Lord has promised that I shall live so many years longer, and therefore I will neither eat nor drink, nor sleep, and the like, to prolong my life.” No, certainly, for as God decreed he should live fifteen years longer, so He decreed he should use the means to recover his health and prolong his life (verse 7).
But I shall stand no longer upon this particular, but come now to handle the words in an absolute consideration. “We are not appointed unto wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ.” In these words there is something implied. We are not appointed unto wrath ‘ which implies that there are a certain number of people appointed by God unto wrath. And here is something expressed, namely, that there are a certain number of people who are not appointed to wrath, but to obtain salvation. And here is expressed that Jesus Christ is the means appointed by God the Father in and through which men should obtain salvation.
These are the three particular heads I shall insist upon. I shall begin this morning with what is implied and come in the afternoon to that which is expressed. First, from what is here implied, observe this doctrine:
DOCTRINE: There are a certain number of men appointed by God to be objects of His eternal wrath.
Beloved, this is dreadful point that I am now to handle, and therefore I shall spend but one hour upon it. I know there are a generation of men who utterly deny any such purpose in God, that any of His creatures should be cast away. Say they, “It would be cruelty in God to decree any of His people to be objects of His wrath.” But I shall clearly evince it.
I will first prove that this doctrine is so, which appears by those many expressions to this purpose. The apostle says, “Hath not the potter power over the clay of the same lump, to make one vessel to honor, and another to dishonor: therefore what if God willing to show His wrath, and make His power known, endured with much longsuffering, the vessels of wrath fitted to destruction?” (Romans 9:21-22). That is, who can say anything to God, or dare charge Him with cruelty or injustice if He does do so? And so in Jude, there is made mention of some “ungodly men, that were before of old ordained to this condemnation” Jude 4). So, the apostle says, “there is a remnant according to the election of grace, and the rest are blinded” (Romans 11:5, 7). There are but some who are to obtain salvation, and others to be objects of God’s eternal wrath.
But the better to clear this truth to you, I shall spend some time in handling two questions. But before I can proceed in handling these questions, I must premise these three or four conclusions:
1. God’s decrees, or appointing some men to be objects of His wrath, do not infuse any sin or evil into such persons, but only withhold His grace from them. Deuteronomy says, “The Lord hath not given thee eyes to see, and ears to hear” (Deuteronomy 29:4). God does not put out their eyes or take away their ears. “So I gave them up unto their own hearts’ lust” (Psalm 81:12). God did not put lust into them, but He withheld His grace from them which would have subdued their lust.
2. The decree of non-election is to be distinguished from the decree of destination to punishment. This latter is usually called by divines “pre-damnation.” The first is an act of God’s sovereignty, the latter an act of His justice. The one considers man as a reasonable creature and mutable, the other as fallen into sin. -t 3. That most of mankind are appointed by God to be objects of His wrath is a very sad truth. “Many are called, but few are chosen” (Matthew 22:14). “There is a remnant according to the election of grace” (Romans 11:5).
It is the observation of one that if the world were divided into 31 parts, of those there are but five parts that ever heard of Christ, and of those how few are there that in their lives do declare any benefit by Christ. Most men lie under this fatal misery, appointed by God to everlasting damnation. The church is but a little flock, a garden, which is but a little spot of ground in comparison of the fields of the earth.
4. Another conclusion is that ordaining most men unto wrath in no way impeaches the mercy of God, because God would show more mercy should He save but one man in the world than He would show severity of justice should He condemn all the rest. And this brings me to the first question I promised to handle.
QUESTION 1. How can it stand with God’s mercy that He should, in His eternal counsels, appoint any of His creatures to be objects of His wrath, when it is said,
that He beheld all the works of His hands, and behold they were all very good”? Now how can it consist with the mercy of God to damn those creatures that He has made, nay, to appoint them to be objects of His wrath before He made them?
ANSWER. It may very well stand with God’s mercy to appoint His creatures to wrath.
1. God has an absolute sovereignty over all His creatures to do with them as He pleases. “May not I do with mine own what I will? And who can say unto Me, ‘What do you do?’ ” And, “Such a power as the potter hath of the same lump of clay, to make one vessel to honor, and another to dishonor” (Romans 9:21). Such a power has God over all the sons and daughters of men. He has an absolute sovereignty over all His creatures to do with them what seems good in His own eyes. And who are you O man, to reply against God?
2. There is a great deal of reason why God should destroy and damn all the creatures that He has made. First, because when God made man, He made him holy and upright, perfect and able to do His will in all things. He was able both to do the will of God and also to continue in that estate wherein God made him, and so to be everlastingly happy. It is true, had God infused any vicious qualities into man, it would be something. But God’s hand was free from any such thing. God at first made man upright, but he has since sought out many inventions (Ecclesiastes 7:29). Adam was in a state of perfection, but only under a possibility of falling if he would. And since God foresaw that man would fall, there was great reason why every man should be damned because every man did fall. So the angels were at first made perfect, yet mutable, and because they fell the Lord condemned every one of them and saved none. But He does not deal so with us. He spared none of the fallen angels, but yet He does save some of us. And therefore He has shown greater mercy to you, the sinful sons and daughters of Adam, than He did to the fallen angels because all angels that fell were damned; but man fell too, and yet the Lord rescues a remnant who are not appointed to wrath, but to obtain salvation through Jesus Christ.
3. The Lord shows more mercy in the saving and appointing of one man to life and salvation than He would have done rigor of justice if He had condemned all the men in the world. I shall make it appear to you because God was not bound to save any, and therefore, if He does, it is an act of grace and mercy. Give me leave to illustrate it to you by this comparison. Suppose a company of malefactors were all condemned to die. Now if a prince should come in among them and choose out one of them, he would show more mercy in saving that one than he would have shown rigor if he had hanged them all, because every one of them deserved it.
Thus it is with us: we have all transgressed and violated God’s law, and thereby lay under the guilt of condemnation, and, being all condemned persons, it is more mercy in God to save but one of us than it would be rigor if He should have saved none.
QUESTION 2. What black brands or characters does the Scripture lay down of such persons who are objects of God’s wrath to all eternity?
Beloved, we can judge no man for the present; we may say that a man who goes on in such a sinful practice is not called, but we cannot say he is not elect. But if he continues living and dying in such a course of sin, this plainly shows such a man to be an object of wrath.
1. That man who has committed the sin against the Holy Ghost is unquestionably appointed by God to damnation. This is unquestionable because he shall neither be forgiven in this life nor in the life to come. In Matthew 12:32 there are a great many ingredients that go into making up this against the Holy Ghost: A man must be a professor of religion. He must have knowledge to his profession. He must have some seeming holiness. He must fall away from all this sin and persecute it. And he must do all this with malice, and against his conscience. All these are ingredients to the sin against the Holy Ghost, and a man who has gone thus far, the Lord has no intentions to save him.
Now the other characteristics I shall give you are not so peremptory and undeniable as this. But yet they are probable symptoms or guesses the Word of God lays down, of such men as are appointed to wrath.
2. A person you may shrewdly guess to be appointed unto wrath is such a one as continues all his life to spurn and condemn the ministry of God’s Word. “As many as were ordained unto eternal life believed” (Acts 13:48). But others who were not rejected it, and put far from them the Word of God. Thus Amaziah did in 2 Chronicles 25:16 when the prophet reproved him for seeking after the gods of the heathens for help who could not even deliver themselves. The king answered him and said, ” ‘Art thou made of the king’s counsel? Forbear, why shouldest thou be smitten?’; then the prophet forbear and said, ‘I know that God hath determined to destroy thee, because thou hast done this, and not harkened unto my counsel.’ ” We may conjecture that God has determined to destroy such a man who lies under the ministry of the Word, opposing and condemning it all his life.
3. We may suspect that man who is given over by God to a judicial hardness of heart and to final impenitence. You may fear such a man to be appointed unto wrath. But after your hardness and impenitent heart, 64 treasurest up unto thyself wrath against the day of wrath, and revelation of the righteous judgment of God” (Romans 2:5). So in Romans the apostle speaks of a remnant according to the election of grace…but the rest were blinded” (Romans 11:5, 7). When God shall give a man over to judicial hardness of heart, when He shall in just judgment harden his heart and give him over to final impenitence, it is a sign such a man is appointed unto wrath.
If God has, all your life, withdrawn the efficacy of His Spirit from His ordinances which you have enjoyed, when you shall perceive the same man that sits in the pew with you in God’s house to grow better and better by every ordinance, and you grow worse and worse; he is made more holy and you more profane; his heart more humble and yours more proud; his heart more soft and tender, and sensible of the least sin, and yours more hard and inflexible; his conscience more awakened and apprehensive of the danger of sin and yours more stupefied and benumbed; he finds the Word of God as marrow and fatness to him, the joy and rejoicing of his heart, but you find no sweetness or relish in it at all this is a sign of reprobation for you.
You who have these sad symptoms upon you are in a very sad condition, and therefore consider seriously what will become of you another day. If you go on in this condition of barrenness and unfruitfulness under the means of grace, and God withdraws the efficacy of His Spirit from His ordinances you live under, this is a shrewd sign that you are a man appointed unto wrath. When God shall, as in Isaiah, “bid you hear indeed but understand not, and see indeed but perceive not, and make your heart fat, and your ears heavy, and shut your eyes, lest you see with your eyes, and hear with your ears, and understand with your hearts, and convert and be healed” (Isaiah 6:9-10), this is a sad symptom of your reprobation.
5. When a man makes the grace and mercy of God to be a means to embolden him in ways of sin and rebellion against God, when a man makes mercy a spur to impiety, and, because God is so good, therefore he will be the more venturous to run on in sin, this is a sad sign of reprobation. “Shall we sin because grace doth abound? God forbid.” He speaks of it with detestation and abhorrence, when men shall presume on the mercy of God, and, because He is so good and gracious, therefore they will be the more wicked and sinful-this is a sad thing. In the epistle of Jude, the apostle there speaks of some ungodly men “that turn the grace of God into lasciviousness” Jude 4). Why, who are they? Says he, “they are such as were of old ordained unto condemnation.” The Apostle lays it down as a sign of men appointed unto wrath, who turn the grace of God to wantonness, and sin because grace abounds.
6. Such as fall away finally from the profession of Christianity are the persons who are appointed by God to destruction, such as fall finally from the profession of the gospel. “If any man draw back, my soul shall have no pleasure in him, but we are not of them that draw back unto perdition, but of them that believe to the saving of the soul” (Hebrews 10:38-39) It is as if He had said, “If any man draw back unto perdition, my soul shall have no pleasure in him, but he shall be an object of My eternal wrath.” Final apostasy is a brand that characterizes a man to be one appointed by God to be an object of His wrath.
Now therefore examine yourselves. If any of you are written in this black bill, and live and die under any of these sad symptoms, you have cause to fear that you are men appointed unto wrath, and cannot possibly obtain salvation through Jesus Christ.