God’s Wrath: “Vengeance Is Mine, I Will Repay,” Says the Lord
Romans 12:19–21 says,
Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
Here we have in verse 19 the phrase, “wrath of God.” “Never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’”
Last time we focused on the psychology of this verse and how it works to free us from the burden of taking justice into our own hands. We focused on some implications of the word “for” in verse 19: “Never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’” Since God is going to take up your cause and see to it that justice is done, you can lay it down. You don’t have to carry anger and bitterness and resentment and revenge. Indeed you dare not. Jesus warned that an unforgiving heart will destroy you in the end (Matthew 6:15; 18:35).
The Reality of God’s Wrath
But today I want to focus not on the psychology of the verse, but the divine reality that makes the psychology work; namely, the reality of God’s wrath. Paul says in verse 19, “Leave it to the wrath of God.” Then the wrath of God is defined further as God’s vengeance, “Vengeance is mine.” So wrath is connected with God’s response to something that deserves vengeance. And then it says, “I will repay.” So God’s wrath is treated as a repayment to man for something man has done.
So just taking this verse alone with its pieces, we could venture a definition of the wrath of God like this: The wrath of God is God’s settled anger toward sin expressed in the repayment of suitable vengeance on the guilty sinner.
Four Characteristics of the Final Wrath of God
The reason I use the word anger to define part of the nature of God’s wrath is that the two words (orge and thumos) are used over a hundred times in the Bible side by side. Some of them are parallel so that you can hardly distinguish them. For example, Psalm 6:1, “O Lord, rebuke me not in your anger, nor discipline me in your wrath.” Psalm 90:7, “We are brought to an end by your anger; by your wrath we are dismayed.” Hosea 13:11, “I gave you a king in my anger, and I took him away in my wrath.” Romans 2:8, “For those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, there will be wrath and fury [anger].”
When you try to distinguish these words the closest you get is something like this from A.T. Robertson: God’s anger (thumos) is his vehement fury or boiling rage. His wrath (orge) is his settled indignation or his settled anger. In other words, in God’s anger the emphasis falls on the emotional, boiling intensity of it. And in God’s wrath the emphasis falls on the controlled, settled, considered direction and focus of its application. But we dare not draw a hard line between them. God’s anger is never out of the control of his wisdom and righteousness, and his wrath is never cool or indifferent, but is always a wisely directed fury. The wrath of God is never less than a perfect, judicial decree, but is always more than a perfect, judicial decree because it is always full of right and fitting fury.
And then we see from the word “repay” and “vengeance” that God’s wrath is his response to sin. God does not take vengeance on the innocent. When he repays with vengeance, we know there has been sin — there is something to repay. And since he is meticulously just, that repayment will be a suitable vengeance, a proper vengeance. It will not be more or less than his perfect justice demands. So here is the definition again: The wrath of God is God’s settled anger toward sin expressed in the repayment of suitable vengeance on the guilty sinner.
What shall we say then about this wrath? Perhaps in the limits of one message we can take note of four things. If we focus on the wrath of God that falls on human beings at the final judgment, we can say at least these four things about it: 1) It will be eternal — having no end. 2) It will be terrible — indescribable pain. 3) It will be deserved — totally just and right. 4) It will have been escapable — through the curse-bearing death of Christ, if we would have taken refuge in him.
1. The final wrath of God is eternal — having no end.
In Daniel 12:2 God promises that the day is coming when “many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt.”
Jesus spoke of the eternity of God’s wrath in numerous ways. Consider three. In Mark 9:43–48, he said,
And if your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life crippled than with two hands to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. And if your foot causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life lame than with two feet to be thrown into hell. And if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into hell, where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched.
So twice he calls the fires of hell “unquenchable”; that is, they will never go out. The point of that is to say soberly and terribly that if you go there, there will be no relief forever and ever.
Second, in Mark 3:29 Jesus says, “Whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit never has forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin.” This is a startling statement. It rules out all those thoughts of universalism that say, “Even if there is a hell, one day it will be emptied after people have suffered long enough.” No. That is not what Jesus said. He said that there is sin for which there will never be forgiveness. There are people who will never be saved. They are eternally lost.
Third, in Matthew 25 he told the parable of the sheep and the goats to illustrate the way it will be when Jesus comes back to save his people and punish the unbelievers. In verse 41 he says, “Then [the king] will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.’” And to make crystal clear that eternal means everlasting he says again in verse 46, “These will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” So the punishment is eternal in the same way that life is eternal. Both mean: never-ending. Everlasting. It is an almost incomprehensible thought. O, let it have its full effect on you. Jesus did not intend to speak this way in vain.
After the teaching of Jesus, the apostle Paul put the eternity of God’s wrath this way in 2 Thessalonians 1:7–9:
The Lord Jesus [will be] revealed from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might.
Destruction does not mean obliteration or annihilation, any more than the destruction of the enemy army means the defeated soldiers do not exist any more. It means they are undone. They are defeated. They are stripped of all that makes life pleasant. They are made miserable forever.
Finally, the great apostle of love, the apostle John, who gives us the sweet words of John 3:16, used the strongest language for the eternal duration of the wrath of God: “And the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever, and they have no rest, day or night” (Revelation 14:11). And Revelation 19:3, “The smoke from her goes up forever and ever.” These are the strongest phrases for eternity that biblical writers could use.
So the first thing we must say about the wrath of God at the end of the age that comes upon those who do not embrace Christ as Savior and Lord is that it is eternal — it will never end.
2. The final wrath of God will be terrible — indescribable pain.
Consider some of the word pictures of God’s wrath in the New Testament. And as you consider them, remember the folly of saying, “But aren’t those just symbols? Isn’t fire and brimstone just a symbol?” I say beware of that because it does not serve your purpose. Suppose fire is a symbol. Do people use symbols of horror because the reality is less horrible or more horrible than the symbols? I don’t know of anyone who uses symbolic language for horrible realities when literal language would make it sound more horrible.
People grasp for symbols of horror (or beauty) because the reality they are trying to describe is worse (or better) than they can put into words. If I say, “My wife is the diamond of my life,” I don’t want you to say, “Oh, he used a symbol of something valuable; it’s only a symbol. So his wife must not be as valuable as a diamond.” No. I used the symbol of the most valuable jewel I could think of because my wife is far more precious than jewels. Honest symbols are not used because they go beyond reality, but because reality goes beyond words.
So when the Bible speaks of hell-fire, woe to us if we say, “It’s only a symbol.” If it is a symbol at all, it means the reality is worse than fire, not better. The word “fire” is used not to make the easy sound terrible, but to make the exceedingly terrible sound something like what it really is.
So Jesus says in Matthew 13:41–42, “The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will gather out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all law-breakers, and throw them into the fiery furnace. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (see verse 49). Then he adds at least three more terrible images of God’s wrath besides fire:
- He pictures it as a master returning and finding his servant disobeying his commands, and he “will cut him in pieces and put him with the hypocrites. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matthew 24:51). The wrath of God is like cutting someone in pieces.
- Then he pictures it as darkness: “The sons of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matthew 8:12). The wrath of God is like being totally blind forever.
- Finally he quotes Isaiah 66:24 and says, “Their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched” (Mark 9:48). In Isaiah 66:24 God says, “And they shall go out and look on the dead bodies of the men who have rebelled against me. For their worm shall not die, their fire shall not be quenched, and they shall be an abhorrence to all flesh.”
In Revelation 6:15–16, the apostle John adds that the wrath of God — indeed the wrath of Jesus himself — will be so terrible that every class of human beings will cry out for rocks to crush them rather than face the wrath:
Then the kings of the earth and the great ones and the generals and the rich and the powerful, and everyone, slave and free, hid themselves in the caves and among the rocks of the mountains, calling to the mountains and rocks, “Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who is seated on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb.”
The last picture of horror that I will mention is the final one of the Bible; namely, the lake of fire. It is called the “second death” in Revelation 20:14: “Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire.” Revelation 2:11 says that those who conquer — that is, believers in Jesus — “will not be hurt by the second death,” implying that those who do not believe will be. Revelation 20:15 makes that explicit: “If anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.” Then verse 10 adds, “They will be tormented day and night forever and ever.”
Therefore, I consider it a gentle understatement to say, “The final wrath of God will be terrible — indescribable pain.” And putting the first and second truths together: This terrible, indescribably painful wrath will last forever. There will be no escape. Now is the day of salvation. Now is the day of God’s patience. After you die, there will be no offer of salvation and no way to obtain it.
3. The wrath of God will be deserved — totally just and right.
Paul labored to show this truth in the first part of this letter to the Romans. Let me remind you of how he said it: “The wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth” (Romans 1:18). Wrath does not come without warrant. It is deserved. The truth of God is known (Romans 1:19–20). And the truth is suppressed. And the fruit is ungodliness and unrighteousness. And on that comes wrath (Ephesians 5:6; Colossians 3:6).
He says it even more explicitly in Romans 2:5: “Because of your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed.” We are responsible. We are storing up wrath with every act of indifference to Christ. With every preference for anything over God. With every quiver of our affection for sin and every second of our dull affections for God.
Then he says it once more in Romans 3:5–6: “If our unrighteousness serves to show the righteousness of God, what shall we say? That God is unrighteous to inflict wrath on us? (I speak in a human way.) By no means! For then how could God judge the world?” Nothing was clearer for the inspired apostle than that God is just and God will judge the world in terrible wrath.
And lest you think that your sins do not deserve this kind of wrath, ponder these four things:
- It was one sin alone that brought the entire world under the judgment of God and brought death upon all people (Genesis 2:17; Romans 5:12). And you have not committed one sin, but tens of thousands of sins.
- Consider James 2:10: “For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it.” Not only have you sinned tens of thousands of times, but each one had in it the breaking of the entire law of God.
- Consider Galatians 3:10: “For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, ‘Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them.’” The wrath of God’s curse falls on us for not obeying all that is commanded. One failure and the curse falls.
- Consider that any offense and any dishonor to an infinitely honorable and infinitely worthy God is an infinite offense and an infinite dishonor. Therefore, an infinite punishment is deserved.
Which leaves one last point to make. And O, how crucial it is! How precious it is. How infinitely beautiful it is.
4. At the end of the age, when the full and final wrath of God is poured out, it will have been escapable.
That means it is escapable now. You do not have to spend eternity under the wrath of God if you will receive God’s Son as your Savior and Lord and Treasure. Why is that? How can that be? Because God so loved the world that he sent his own infinitely valuable Son to absorb the infinite wrath of God against all who take refuge in him. Listen with trembling wonder and gratitude and faith to this precious statement from Galatians 3:13: “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us — for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree.’”
Christ bore the curse of God’s wrath for all who come to him and believe in him and glory in the shelter of his blood and righteousness. Come. Come. He is infinitely worthy.