What man ever came to God while in the pursuit of earthly pleasures? What man, when absorbed with the world’s goods suddenly discovered God himself to be a better treasure than all the wealth and pleasure that the world offered? How much more in the other direction is it that the millions that the Father has drawn unto himself he has done so through trials, difficulties and danglings over death and judgment? How many are the countless stories of men and women who were on the precipice of death, in the heart of doom, under the weight of the greatest sorrow and God shown through and awakened them to the brilliance of his glory?
Many will say that to preach “fire and brimstone” is too much, overbearing and alienating. They would instead have preached to them a “god of love” who coddles them in their sin and lets them limp along in worldly engagements all-the-while never becoming angry at their perpetual engagement with treacherous activities. But who ever came to God out of their own strength, out of their own pleasure, out of their own joy? We can scarce think of any. In fact, I dare say that this is a fantasy that does not exist.
It is the nature of God to draw the broken man and to crush the strong to bring them to him. Look at every instance of those who came to Christ in the Gospels. Every man who came to him was beset with some debilitating or life-threatening injury. Christ’s greatest mercy and grace was lavished on those. The weaker they were that came, the greater the grace that was bestowed upon them. But for those who were strong in themselves, who were full of the world’s pleasure and treasures, who coveted nothing more than a fancy life, filled with their own goods, Jesus gave them the cry of judgment, the sounding of the death horn – he gave them the cross.
Though all who come to God by Jesus must come through the cross, some men already have the cross laden upon them and they simply must come to Jesus and ask him for healing. Other men are so far from the cross and God must go through great extents to lay the cross upon them and crush them so that they see and feel their need for him. The latter is the case with the greater extent of men around us today. Men feel no need of God. Men are strong in themselves, feeding their mouths, entertaining their minds, and ignoring their hearts, lapping up the delicacies that the world offers to them. They love a “god of love” – a god in whom there is no “fire and brimstone”. They love coming to a god who says, “Come as you are, with all your idolatry and lust and sensuality and mockery and filth and vileness, I love you anyway.” They love this god because he offers everything and demands nothing.
Our current state of affairs demands that “fire and brimstone” be brought back into the pulpit. Our countrymen and neighbors do not feel the nearness of death, fear the coming judgment, or consider the eternal impact of their choices. When you enter into a country or nation that is on the brink of extinction because of starvation, it is there you witness the fleeting and vaporous existence that life is. You see in the eyes of a starving child that this life hangs on by a thread. The comforts that we inoculate and insulate ourselves stand as much chance before the circumstances of life as a new-born gazelle before a ravenous, charging lion. Our lives are but dust and ashes, “here today and gone tomorrow.” These words are often forgotten, and there is but one assured elixir that awakens men from their stupor.
If the circumstances of life have not brought a man to see his need for Christ, by what then will he come? Men must first be brought to see their need of God before they can feel the love of God. It is rare that a man today would say that he needs God and that without him, though he had all that this world desired, he would rather be accursed and dead. Instead, men do not think of God as someone whom the need. God to them is someone who they like very much because he affirms them, he bolsters their self-assessment, he agrees that they ought to pursue what they pursue, to consume what they consume and remain as they remain. God’s demands of them are very cheap. He may set upon them some sort of disciplinary measure, to add to their life some sort of pietistic maneuver by which they further indebt God to themselves. But these measures are only difficult insofar as they do not cause to much interference with their common daily route of self-fulfillment. They laugh at the idea that they need God. Though they would surely affirm their need with their mouths, in their hearts God is needed only to that degree that he fulfills their own self-promotion.
A poor man, a broken man, a weak man, a dying man – these are those who often are brought to feel their need for God. It is these who we see coming to Jesus in crowds and multitudes. But what marks their coming is that they feel in the depths of their soul their infinite need for God. This is why Jesus declares, “Go in peace, your faith has made you well.” These are those who have found the treasure in the field and, seeing its great price, go and sell all of their possessions. But to the rich men, the self-righteous, the self-seeking hypocrites, the response is piercing, “You brood of vipers, who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit in keeping with repentance.”
What men in our day must be taught is that there is a God who’s wrath is so fierce and anger so strong that the depths of the oceans and the expanse of the skies could not contain its force. The might of his terror would cause the eyes to weep for eternity, the voice to lift is scream unendingly, if in any way these tears and screams might exhaust and give vent to the pain and agony that are borne under its weight. Hell is not a place to be trifled with when it’s flames are but a breath away. God’s wrath is licking at our feet in this life and we are the stupidest of fools to neglect the nearness of his anger.
What else will wake men? Telling them of God’s love? Not until its time. God’s love is not to be pandered as though it were a coverall for acceptance regardless of circumstance. Many today have lost nearly all sensibility about the backdrop that God’s love is set against. God’s love is not cheap. It cost God the life of his Son to do away with sin, the sins that every man who ever lived has had a love affair with. When we offer God’s love, in what manner do we do so? Do we offer it as though it were some cheap trinket bought at a flea market? Do we offer it as though it were some magical charm conjured up in a spell-book that, if said, will “heal all your diseases and cure all your infirmities”?
Jesus was not so foolish with his dispensing of the Father’s love. He offered the Father’s love, but he certainly laid a condition upon it – repentance. Unless a man comes in repentance, then what Christ declares for that person is the most horrifying of experiences any shall endure:
Then he began to denounce the cities where most of his mighty works had been done, because they did not repent. “Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the mighty works done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. But I tell you, it will be more bearable on the day of judgment for Tyre and Sidon than for you And you, Capernaum, will you be exalted to heaven? You will be brought down to Hades. For if the mighty works done in you had been done in Sodom, it would have remained until this day But I tell you that it will be more tolerable on the day of judgment for the land of Sodom than for you.”
In a land so filled with pleasure, with men and women who trifle away their hours endlessly in entertainments, ceaseless in their care for their own activities, what must be present in the mouths of those who declare the glories of heaven is the terrors of hell. It is true that God’s love on its own can draw men. But these are the rare and few in our land and are often those who have already felt the lickings of God’s wrath at their feet. Are we not witnesses to the dilapidated state of Christianity in the West, where the love of God has been so freely offered for a century? Millions of men and women who say that they have encountered the “love of god” and yet are unrepentant in their love affair with the world? The liberal application of the love of God in exclusion to his wrath and anger over the last century has demonstrated for us what kind of Christianity it produces – a fruitless, worldly, self-absorbed religion. Sure it can mimic philanthropic endeavors, sure it can mimic nice behavior and cordial greetings. But this new breed dares not to openly bear witness to the anger and wrath of God against sin. And we all can see the fruit of this teaching.
We certainly must be cautious with our use of fire and brimstone and dare not drive away the bruised reed and the smoldering wick. But I fear that we too often assume that this is the greater portion of men among us. We are too apt forget that Christ Jesus himself was slain even for these bruised reeds and smoldering wicks. No man is innocent before God, not even the bruised reeds and smoldering wicks.
The weight of mens choices, the preciousness of time, the importance of their deeds – many things that will only come into a clear light when brought against the backdrop of fire and brimstone. Too many have trifled with these, pandering with them as though they had an infinite store from which they draw. But if for a moment they were to feel the momentary breath that this life is carried upon and the weight that God gives to the choices made upon earth, if they were to feel, for but a moment, the terror that awaits on the other side, there may be hope.
It is this unyeilding wrath that gives all the more beauty to God’s infinite love. When a man’s conscience is so wrought upon by the weight and power of God’s anger and then beholds the wondrous love that was wrought on their behalf on the cross of calvary, it can melt through the greatest and stoutest heart, in can shatter the hardest and crush the most obstinate will. When a such a man encounters the God, who on their behalf eternally planned the murder and crucifixion of his own Son, it has the greatest power to weaken any excuse, tear down any defense, break through any fortress. Man is rendered utterly helpless before the message of the cross of Jesus Christ. But this cross was not filled with pretty bows and soft colored sashes. The cross was filled with blood and flesh, moans and cries, tears and sweat, beatings and cursings, pain, agony and death.
We do not look upon a Savior who’s blood was given cheaply. We do not look upon a Savior who thought lightly, belittled, or marginalized the wrath of God. We look upon a Savior who set his face like flint upon the wrath of God and face it manfully. He took it and bore its weight. He was crushed, bruised, wounded and slaughtered. You cannot encounter Jesus on the cross without encountering the wrath of God. To remove fire and brimstone is to strip the cross of its meaning and leave it as a horrible, useless event that saved no one and accomplished nothing.
We must bring me to taste death so that when the see the cross of Jesus Christ standing before their eyes they know its truth and feel its weight. We dare not run from fire and brimstone, for if we do, we undo the cross of its most central piece – propitiation – the bearing of God’s wrath on behalf of another. If we do not give this age of men the fire and brimstone that await them beyond the grave, then they will never look upon the cross with hope and joy. They will only see the cross as a model by which they may see how to live their lives, not seeing it as the only hope and joy and peace and grace of their lives. They will fail to see that the cross is the only hope for wicked, evil, self-centered, hell-bent sinners who in but a moment could enter an eternity of sitting underneath the wrath of God, offering up their screams and tears forever as an incense of justice. They will see that this cross not only spares them this fate but ushers in for them the most diametrically opposed life to this wrathful hell – that on the other side of the cross is the gates of heaven, the tree of life, and the God who has promised for all eternity, “I will never leave you nor forsake you”.
Let us all with Paul say,
“Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith— that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.”