Lent 2019: Fleming Rutledge, The Crucifixion (29) The wrath of God understood pastorally

Rutledge_Understanding the Death of JC_wrk03_c.inddWe continue our Lenten series on Fleming Rutledge’s outstanding book, The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ (2015).

This post zones in on one issue raised within Chapter 8 ‘The Great Assize’ – the relationship of the cross to the last judgement.

And, in a very big chapter, we are going to focus in on one issue that Rutledge discusses along the way – that of the wrath of God.

The wrath of God is linked to both the law court (we are guilty) and to the larger apocalyptic framework of his war against Sin and evil Powers.

It is impossible, I think, to take the Bible seriously and not face head-on the way that God’s wrath is integral to both Old and New Testaments.

Hundreds of texts could be referenced. Rutledge refers to Isaiah 13:11-13. One I find particularly sobering is Isaiah 63 – which reappears in revelation 19:13, this time referring to Jesus as the divine warrior whose robe is dipped in blood.

Why are your garments red,
like those of one treading the winepress?

“I have trodden the winepress alone;
from the nations no one was with me.
I trampled them in my anger
and trod them down in my wrath;
their blood spattered my garments,
and I stained all my clothing.
It was for me the day of vengeance;
the year for me to redeem had come.
I looked, but there was no one to help,
I was appalled that no one gave support;
so my own arm achieved salvation for me,
and my own wrath sustained me.
I trampled the nations in my anger;
in my wrath I made them drunk
and poured their blood on the ground.”

Revelation 19:11-16

11 I saw heaven standing open and there before me was a white horse, whose rider is called Faithful and True. With justice he judges and wages war. 12 His eyes are like blazing fire, and on his head are many crowns. He has a name written on him that no one knows but he himself. 13 He is dressed in a robe dipped in blood, and his name is the Word of God. 14 The armies of heaven were following him, riding on white horses and dressed in fine linen, white and clean. 15 Coming out of his mouth is a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations. “He will rule them with an iron scepter.” He treads the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God Almighty. 16 On his robe and on his thigh he has this name written:

king of kings and lord of lords.

This is a long way from ‘Jesus meek and mild’.

Rutledge acknowledges that such texts have all but disappeared from mainline USA churches but argues that

“It takes effort and risk to sit with these verses in order to study or teach them, but if we do not, we are left with sentimentality instead of transformation.” (322)

If creation is to be set to rights this means there must be a day of reckoning,

“a conclusive judgment upon and rejection of all that threatens God’s eternal plan.’ (322)

This poses a challenge for preachers and teachers today not to give a distorted picture of the nature of God. His wrath

“is always exercised in the service of God’s good purposes. It is the unconditional love of God manifested against anything that would frustrate or destroy the designs of his love.” (323)

Consider Romans 5:8-10 – how do you read this text?

But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.

Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God’s wrath through him! 10 For if, while we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life!

Is it to be read chronologically? Namely:

  1. We were God’s enemies
  2. We needed to be saved from his wrath
  3. Now ‘justified by his blood’ we were reconciled
  4. God’s wrath has now been lifted.

Rutledge argues that this chronological view is a “misleading reading of the passage” (323). What do you make of her interpretation here?

“God did not change his mind about us on account of the cross or on any other account. He did not need to have his mind changed. He was never opposed to us. It is not his opposition to us but our opposition to him that had to be overcome, and the only way it could be overcome was from God’s side, by God’s initiative, from inside human flesh – the human flesh of his Son.” (323)

Rutledge is keen to avoid here any sense of ‘schizophrenia’ in God (if I may be so bold to use such an image). She does not say this, but close to the surface here is a concern with creating an impression that God has to overcome his wrath in himself by taking out that wrath on his Son.

Rather,

“The divine hostility, or wrath of God, has always been an aspect of his love. It is not separate from God’s love, it is not opposite to God’s love, it is not something in God that has to be overcome.” (323)

To which I say, Amen.

5 thoughts on “Lent 2019: Fleming Rutledge, The Crucifixion (29) The wrath of God understood pastorally

  1. It would seem that if I am to call myself a Christ-ian, then I must come to Christ as He has revealed Himself in the Scripture even though His self-revelation does not conform to modern (or traditional, or postmodern) categories and sensibilities. To construct or limit God or Jesus within the parameters of my own understanding or desires is the ambition of making a god in my own image, which is the essence of idolatry. Of course, my current understanding of God has its idolatrous elements due to my own ignorance and hardness of heart, but this is where enhanced understanding of who God is as per His self-revelation in the Scriptures, repentance, deepening awe and worship are all part of my discipleship till I see Him face-to-face. But to allow the context of cultural consensus and its fashionable tenets to pre-determine my theology is to fabricate an idol of my own making. This may be a serious matter to consider.

  2. I guess this has been and is a constant tension for Christians down the centuries. There will always be elements of the biblical witness that are particularly hard to see or to hold to depending on the cultural context. Wrath sure is one in the West. The ‘supernatural’ including miracles and the reality of a cosmic ‘war’ is another – the coming posts on the next chapter get into this. As a young Christian I used to think the ‘key’ to witness and mission was to be ‘relevant’ to the culture. I don’t think that any more.

    • I think I see your concern here, i.e. allowing culture to dictate our witness in a conformist manner. We can also see that although biblical truth transcends any particular culture, it is always contextualised in some cultural form. Reading my Bible in English is a cultural matter and relevant to language for my understanding of the text that supersedes my particular culture.
      But this is a whole topic in and of itself, i.e. contextualisation.
      If I may suggest for the readership a book for this whole area: One Gospel For All Nations: A Practical Approach to Contextualization by Jackson Wu.

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