Beauty from Ashes: The Plight of Man and the Plan of God

CROSS Student Missions Conference

Louisville, Kentucky

In these six verses of Scripture, we find a more complete statement of this chapter’s subtitle. Here in this passage is both the plan of God (verses 13–17) and the plight of man (verse 18). If we were to summarize this text in one overarching thought, we might put it this way: The plan of God is to send unashamed preachers to reach unreached peoples to display his unparalleled power and unearned righteousness in saving from an unrelenting wrath.

The Plan of God

This plan must be carried out in a certain way.

First, we pursue the plan with the correct motivation. In verse 15, Paul says, “I am eager . . .” He’s eager. He has a keen interest. He has an intense desire or a restless expectation. Paul is like a dog pulling hard on his master’s leash trying to chase every animal with the bark of the gospel. He’s straining forward in the gospel.

And why shouldn’t he be eager? The gospel is the best news in the universe! There ought to be in us the same eagerness, zeal, and burning to herald this happy news. We should be dogs pulling on our Master’s leash, barking to make Christ known — eager, anticipating, desirous that our Lord’s glory should be known.

So we ought to ask ourselves: Am I eager? Am I eager to play my part in the plan of God to reach the nations? We must pursue God’s plan with eagerness.

Second, we pursue the plan with the correct method — “preach the gospel.” The plan of God is that by the foolishness of preaching, men and women will hear the message that rescues them. The gospel must be taught before it is caught. Christ must be proclaimed if he is going to be possessed. There must be the use of words if men will ever know the wonder of God’s love for a sinful world.

When Paul boils down his missionary method to its bedrock foundation, he always talks of preaching and teaching the gospel. He builds everything — his entire missionary agenda — on this one essential method. So Paul says things like, “I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Corinthaians 2:2). Or, “Him we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ” (Colossians 1:28).

That’s his method. I emphasize this for one reason: too many Christians wrongly think Christ can be made known without the use of words. That’s false. And too many missionaries give so much time to strategies for getting in and remaining in countries that they sadly never get around to proclaiming Christ.

“Christ must be proclaimed if he is going to be possessed.”

Let me be clear: missionary strategy has its place. It’s essential. There are tons of things to consider when going to the hardest-to-reach places, often among the most resistant people. Strategy has a necessary place. But strategy never saved anyone. The gospel does. So all our strategy must aim at the preaching of the gospel. Strategy must position us to proclaim. We undertake every strategy in order to herald Christ. And we risk everything else in order to make Christ known.

I am not trying to be trite about the risks of serving in some places among some peoples. Many have given their lives in this cause. We are not being flippant about the need for strategy and the risks involved; we are saying that all of the scheming and calculated risks happen for another great thing to happen — the preaching, the proclaiming of the good news of Jesus Christ. That is what is uppermost in Paul’s mind. Our strategy will support our preaching if we’re eager to preach Christ.

Third, we have to pursue the plan with the correct mark — the correct aim or target. Paul wants to preach the gospel to “you also who are in Rome.” Paul tells us throughout this letter that he wants to preach the gospel to people who do not know him and do not know Christ.

According to verse 13, Paul has never visited Rome or preached the gospel among the Romans because he has been laboring in other places where Christ is not named. Paul feels this obligation to Greeks and to Barbarians (verse 14). I remember Mark Dever recounting that he once heard John Stott powerfully point out from this text how Paul understood himself to have received from God an obligation for other people. May the obligation of this text rest upon our shoulders also. May God in heaven oblige us to serve not ourselves, but to serve our God and his Christ in the seeking of the nations.

This is what Paul is about. Paul hears from people in Rome, and he immediately thinks, “This is a gospel opportunity.” The Romans are Gentiles with a very different world and life-view. The Romans are a people who value military might. Rome was the cosmopolitan center of the world. They were pagans who worshiped the emperor as a god and participated in a number of idolatrous temple cults.

What Paul sees when he considers the Romans is a people in need of the gospel. What we observe in this text is a Jewish man desiring to cross cultural and ethnic lines to make the gospel known to a specific people group unknown to him.

Paul is the kind of Christian who labors most where Christ is known least. So he writes in Romans 15:20–21, “I make it my ambition to preach the gospel, not where Christ has already been named, lest I build on someone else’s foundation, but as it is written, ‘Those who have never been told of him will see, and those who have never heard will understand.’”

If the apostle Paul were alive today and were invited to write a chapter on missions in a book like this one, I believe he would indeed address the subject of unreached and unengaged peoples. He would bring to our attention the unreached, those six-thousand-plus people groups with less than two percent of their population known to be Christian. He would call to mind those people groups who have no viable evangelical church among them. He would point even more specifically to the unengaged peoples and challenge the church to pursue those groups among which there are currently no known efforts to bring the gospel.

Paul says in chapter 15 that he wants to preach “not where Christ has already been named,” but deliver the message to “those who have never been told of Jesus so they will see him and those who have never heard so they will understand.” The apostle puts the entire world in the crosshairs of the gospel. We’re seeing Paul for the great cross-cultural, gospel-preaching, church-planting missionary that he is. And in Paul, we’re seeing a vision for what we should be about as individual Christians and together as the church.

Is this your vision for how you’re going to invest your life? Are you eager? Are you feeling the need to be eager? Are you desiring to preach Christ, to make him known where he is not known? Is your heart set yet on a particular people, unreached and unengaged?

The Grounds of Paul’s Ministry: Why God’s Plan Is Bound to Be Successful

Why would Paul express such eagerness to preach the gospel among the Romans, among a people unknown to him and largely unknown to Jesus?

He gives us the reasons in verses 16–17. Notice the word “for” occurs three times in these two verses. That little word alerts us to the fact that Paul will now give us the reason or basis for what he states in verse 15. In this case, these three clauses tell us why Paul is so eager to preach the gospel to the Romans and why God’s plan for the nations will prevail.

First, Paul is eager to preach the gospel to a people unknown to him and largely unknown to Christ because he is “not ashamed of the gospel.” Paul’s being unashamed releases his eagerness. We are not eager about things that embarrass us, are we? But because he is unashamed, Paul is free to be fully vested and eager to herald the good news. How did Paul become unashamed?

Paul tells us, second, he is not ashamed of the gospel because the gospel “is the power of God for salvation.” Why be ashamed of something that contains divine power? Why be embarrassed about a message that raises dead men to life? The power of God in the gospel makes Paul barrel-chested and lionhearted. Paul has tasted and seen and felt the demonstration of the power of God in the gospel. Consequently, Paul is unashamed. And because he’s unashamed, he’s eager.

Third, Paul tells us the gospel is the power of God for salvation because in the gospel “the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith.” The gospel goes out, dead men are regenerated and brought to life, given the gifts of repentance and faith; and in that faith, as they treasure and lay hold to Christ, God declares them “righteous,” “justified”. All that Jesus Christ is and all that he has done has become theirs by faith and the believer’s union with him.

This series of for clauses forms a kind of chain reaction. Because Paul is confident of the power of the gospel, he is then unashamed. Because he is unashamed, he is eager. The series of clauses in these two verses is like a relay of explosive charges firing one after another. They’re like bombs exploding in sequence and destroying indifference, apathy, and shame.

So, if we are ashamed or uneager, then somewhere this chain reaction has misfired. We’ve either failed to understand the righteousness of God revealed in the gospel or the power of God to save or the boldness that comes from a preaching ministry resting on God’s power. If we’re not eager to preach the gospel to the nations, then we need to find out which bomb has not exploded in our thinking and our affections — and we need to light the fuse!

This is God’s plan: to send unashamed preachers to reach unengaged peoples with God’s unparalleled power and unearned righteousness in salvation.

The Plight of Man (verse 18)

Why would such a plan be necessary? Why does God call Paul, and call us, to go to people unknown to us and unknown to Christ to preach the gospel?

Notice that verse 18 begins with “for” as well. This little word is there for two reasons.

First, the word for explains why the righteous live by faith. The righteous must live by faith because all other means of attempting to live before God end in the wrath of God. “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth” (verse 18). Without the righteousness of God in the gospel, man is left attempting a righteousness of his own. But Isaiah 64:6 tells us very plainly, “We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment” or “filthy rags.”

Before an infinitely holy God, and without faith, our very best efforts at cleanness are filthy. They are merely failed attempts at self-justification. It means that when we’re trying to be good in order to be justified, all we end up doing is making God angry. We need a righteousness from outside ourselves. That’s why Paul explains in verse 18 that the righteous shall live by faith, because “God’s wrath is being revealed against the ungodliness and unrighteousness of men.”

The second reason Paul begins with wrath is because Paul is not ashamed of the gospel. Because he’s not ashamed of the gospel, Paul is not ashamed of one essential doctrine of the gospel — God’s wrath. Paul smoothly moves from justification by faith to devastation by wrath without self-consciousness, hand-wringing, squirming, or apologizing. Paul is not ashamed of the biblical truth that God is a God of wrath toward sinners. In fact, all the writers of the Bible are unashamed of God’s wrath.

In his commentary on Romans, Jim Boice writes regarding this verse,

Today’s preaching is deficient at many points. But there is no point at which it is more evidently inadequate and even explicitly contrary to the teachings of the New Testament than in its neglect of “the wrath of God.” God’s wrath is a dominant Bible teaching and the point in Romans at which Paul begins his formal exposition of the gospel. Yet, to judge from most contemporary forms of Christianity, the wrath of God is either an unimportant doctrine, which is an embarrassment, or an entirely wrong notion, which any enlightened Christian should abandon. (Boice, Romans, volume 1, Justification by Grace: Romans 1–4 [Baker, 2005], 129)

In other words, here is one place where so many Christians — even preachers and missionaries — depart tragically from the Scriptures, and it is a truth integral to the gospel. Think about those times when you’ve spoken with your unbelieving classmate or professor about the gospel. When God’s wrath comes up, perhaps you’ve felt a temptation to shrink back, to try to make God a good guy in their eyes, and talk about God in a way that assures our unbelieving friend they’re going to like him. How tempting it is in those times to slide over the Bible’s teaching about the wrath of God.

But God is not embarrassed about his wrath. He’s not ashamed of his judgment. He doesn’t shrink back or try to present a more flattering side of his character while hiding behind his back a truth unpleasant to our increasingly post-Christian society. He tells us very plainly that he is a God of wrath. Not the out-of-control anger and lashing vengeance of men. His wrath is his settled, purposeful, righteous indignation or anger or fury — as verse 18 says — against the unrighteousness and ungodliness of men. In other words, God is right to be wrathful given the sins of men against his glory and goodness. His wrath is just. John Frame writes this helpful bit of instruction:

No one should try by some exegetical or theological trick to mitigate against the harshness of this doctrine. That harshness is the whole point. To be separate from God, from his inheritance, from his people, and to be under his wrath forever is terrible to contemplate. (Frame, Salvation Belongs to the Lord [P&R Publishing, 2006], 298)

We do some of our best work in evangelism when we make sure people understand the wrath of God against them, that their plight is desperate because God is angry. The problem of unreached and unengaged peoples is not that they don’t have the gospel — that’s the solution. Their plight is that they face a God who is rightly angry with them because of their sin.

“God is not embarrassed about his wrath.”

We bear the Christian message best when we embrace the righteous wrath of God as good and beautiful just as we embrace his love as good and beautiful. The wrath of God is one of his perfections too. So the Christian missionary is one who worships and weeps simultaneously. We have this strange kind of embrace where, on the one hand, we exalt God for his righteousness expressed sometimes in his wrath while we, on the other hand, weep for the nations in danger of his coming wrath. Both the worship and the weeping motivate us to go and proclaim that one Savior who assuages or turns away the Father’s wrath.

If we mitigate the harshness of God’s wrath, we will minimize the urgency of God’s mission. Leave it “harsh” or sharp or weighty because only then will we begin to understand the plight of mankind, and the serious danger unreached and unengaged peoples face because the wrath of God abides on them.

The Definition of God’s Wrath

The wrath of God is related to three other attributes of God: righteousness, holiness, and justice. Martyn Lloyd-Jones writes, “The righteousness of God is God’s love for holiness, and the justice of God is God’s abomination of sin.” God loves holiness and hates sin. The expression of those two things is wrath. Wrath is how God punishes evil and honors purity.

John Murray says, “Wrath is the holy revulsion of God’s being against that which is evil arising out of God’s very nature” (Murray, The Epistle to the Romans [Eerdmans, 1955], 162–63; cited in Boice, Romans, 132). In other words, wrath is in God. It is part of his nature and being. His whole person is against sin and ungodliness. So, verse 18: “The wrath of God . . . against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men . . .” Man’s predicament is that his sin has provoked an omnipotent and holy God. God stands against man. This is why the Bible warns, “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Hebrews 10:31), and, our “God is a consuming fire” (Deuteronomy 4:24; Hebrews 12:29).

Some people will object to this view of God. They say, “If God is wrathful, then he is a monster. Doesn’t this make God capricious and mean?” They say, “Such anger is not consistent with a god of love.” So they reject this view of God, and they try to explain away passages like Romans 1. They find this doctrine an embarrassment, unworthy of God.

But we might ask such a person a couple of questions. First, “Does evil really exist in the world in which we live?” Obviously, yes. Well, second: “Should that evil go unpunished?” Obviously, not. Then, third: “Who will punish the evil that’s really in the world if not God?” Who knows how best to punish evil if not God? Finally, “What would God be like if he did not hate and punish evil and sin?” The wrath of God is as necessary a doctrine in a fallen, evil world as is the love of God.

Man wants a world where evil does not exist and where God does not punish it. But evil does exist. So mankind cannot have it both ways. We cannot have a world where evil is punished and a world where God does not punish it. God will show the perfection of his character even in the wrath shown toward evil.

The Disclosure of God’s Wrath Now

Not only is God’s wrath a central theme in the Bible, and the bad news that makes the good news good, but God’s wrath is a present reality. “The wrath of God is revealed,” or as some translations read, “is being revealed” (verse 18 NIV). The verb is present tense. God is right now displaying his wrath against the ungodly and the unrighteous.

Jim Boice writes, “In the Old Testament more than twenty words are used to refer to God’s wrath. There are nearly six hundred important passages on the subject” (Boice, Romans, 131). This is a central teaching of the Bible. God displays his wrath not only at the end of time, but also in the progress of time. Consider a few of the many Old Testament passages.

Exodus 22:23–24 provides laws about social justice for sojourners, widows, and orphans. The Lord God speaks through Moses, saying, “If you do mistreat them, and they cry out to me, I will surely hear their cry, and my wrath will burn, and I will kill you with the sword, and your wives shall become widows and your children fatherless.”

Exodus 32:9–10 includes the famous scene where Aaron fashions the golden calf and Israel commits idolatry with it. The Lord says to Moses, “I have seen this people, and behold, it is a stiff-necked people. Now therefore let me alone, that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them, in order that I may make a great nation of you.” If Moses had not interceded for Israel, the Lord would have consumed them.

Numbers 16:43–46 recounts Israel’s grumbling after God opened the earth to swallow Korah and all those who rebelled. “And Moses and Aaron came to the front of the tent of meeting, and the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, ‘Get away from the midst of this congregation, that I may consume them in a moment.’ And they fell on their faces. And Moses said to Aaron, ‘Take your censer, and put fire on it from off the altar and lay incense on it and carry it quickly to the congregation and make atonement for them, for wrath has gone out from the Lord; the plague has begun.’”

Numbers 25 includes the passage where Phinehas honors the Lord by putting to death an Israelite man and Moabite woman who profaned the camp of the Lord in sexual immorality. We read: “Phinehas the son of Eleazar, son of Aaron the priest, has turned back my wrath from the people of Israel, in that he was jealous with my jealousy among them, so that I did not consume the people of Israel in my jealousy” (Numbers 25:11).

Deuteronomy 9:7–8 says, “Remember and do not forget how you provoked the Lord your God to wrath in the wilderness. From the day you came out of the land of Egypt until you came to this place, you have been rebellious against the Lord. Even at Horeb you provoked the Lord to wrath, and the Lord was so angry with you that he was ready to destroy you.”

Joshua 22:20 refers to the cursed thing at Ai when it asks, “Did not Achan the son of Zerah break faith in the matter of the devoted things, and wrath fell upon all the congregation of Israel? And he did not perish alone for his iniquity.”

In 2 Kings 22:13, young King Josiah finds the scroll and reads the Word of God. He laments, “Go, inquire of the Lord for me, and for the people, and for all Judah, concerning the words of this book that has been found. For great is the wrath of the Lord that is kindled against us, because our fathers have not obeyed the words of this book, to do according to all that is written concerning us.”

Psalm 78:49–51 commemorates in song God’s wrath against Egypt:

He let loose on them his burning anger, wrath, indignation, and distress, a company of destroying angels. He made a path for his anger; he did not spare them from death, but gave their lives over to the plague. He struck down every firstborn in Egypt, the firstfruits of their strength in the tents of Ham.

Beloved, these texts represent a small sampling of the Bible’s texts on God’s wrath. We don’t have time to talk of the flood of Noah, when in his wrath against the continual wickedness of men, God destroyed all but eight souls. We don’t have time to retell the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, cities whose wickedness reached heaven and God destroyed all but three souls. Or the wilderness wandering where God wiped out an entire generation of Israel, and only two souls entered the Promised Land.

Or Nadab and Abihu consumed by God for offering strange fire and being consumed for doing so. Or the prophets’ frequent mention of the day of the Lord when God’s wrath shall burn against the nations. As J.I. Packer put it, “One of the most striking things about the Bible is the vigor with which both testaments emphasize the reality and terror of God’s wrath” (J.I. Packer, Knowing God [InterVarsity Press, 1973], 134–35; cited in Boice, Romans, 131).

The plight of the unreached is that a righteous, omnipotent God is angry with them.

And most of these judgments were against his (old) covenant people! If judgment begins with the household of God, what will be the outcome for those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord (1 Peter 4:17)? What will be the outcome for North Africa and the people groups there? What will be the outcome for the various regions of Asia where people do not know the name of Christ? If judgment begins at the household of God, what will be the outcome for people in various lands across the planet who have yet to bow the knee in loving worship of Christ?

Psalm 76:7 proclaims:

But you, you are to be feared! Who can stand before you when once your anger is roused?

Romans 1:18 tells us God’s anger is already roused. No one can stand in his presence if he holds their sins against them. No one can survive — unless his wrath is turned away.

The Destruction of God’s Wrath Eternally

The wrath of God revealed now in this life is only a preview of the full and final wrath of God poured out in eternity. Here’s how Paul puts it 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.” That is what is happening even while you are reading this book. There are some six thousand unreached and three thousand unengaged people groups going about their daily lives storing up wrath each hour.

What a terrifying image this is! Picture unbelieving mankind in his sin. Their righteous deeds are filthy. Their sinful deeds are filthy. They all provoke the holy anger of God. It’s like making continual deposits in the First Bank of Wrath. They are storing up anger. It’s like taking a day’s living in the form of grain and storing it in the warehouse of God’s righteous indignation. God’s judgment is being built up like floods behind a dam. A trickle comes out here and there as God gives them over to their sinful desires (Romans 1:24–28). But his full fury is being built up until the Day of Judgment when the dam shall burst and the righteous wrath of God shall sweep across the globe.

That’s what happens if we don’t go. Real people face the real anger of God.

The first time I saw my father in a church was at his funeral. As far as I know, he never came to faith in Christ. I loved my dad. He was about five-feet, ten-inches tall — a barrel-chested man. I remember when he was strong. He had muscular hands with fingers the size of Twinkies. He didn’t say much. He either called me “Sport” or “Tiger.” He came to all my games; he picked me up after all my practices.

He was never a believer. He was unfaithful to my mom. He was what we might call a “hustler” in terms of how he made his living in petty gambling. Later in life, my dad had a series of strokes, the last of which left him unable to speak, cloudy eyed, and out of it.

I’d only become a Christian about a year before the final stroke. At that point, I had no relationship with my father; he’d left the family when I was about thirteen years old. But my wife challenged me to be reconciled with my father. One night, over stuffed mushrooms at Bennigan’s, she asked me, “What are you going to do when your father dies?” I shrugged at the question and replied, “I don’t really know the man. I’m not sure I will feel anything.”

But the Lord began to soften my heart. I started visiting him in the convalescence home where he stayed. He was a shell of himself, hardly there, unable to speak or communicate. I’d speak into his ear, and he’d slightly turn his head toward me. I remember the last visit whispering the gospel in his ear, not sure if he could hear me or what response would come, telling him of God’s judgment and God’s love and salvation through the Lord Jesus Christ.

I don’t know what happened in my father’s heart and soul. I know that morning in the church my heart broke with the finality of the casket being closed, of his life being ended. As far as I know, he went to eternity without Christ. He suffers the wrath of God — the righteous, the just, the holy wrath of God. My father.

When we say there are more than six thousand unreached people groups and three thousand unengaged people groups, we are referring to almost three billion people. We are referring to more than 40 percent of the world’s population! Fathers, mothers, sons, and daughters going to an eternity without Jesus. The only thing that turns God’s wrath away is Jesus.

Romans 3:25 says that God “put forward [Christ Jesus] as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. . . .” Yes, God is angry, and he is right to be so. But the good news of the gospel is that he has done something to satisfy his anger. Specifically, God the Father has put forward Christ to die in our place, to shed his blood in order to turn away the Father’s wrath from all those who believe and receive the gift of Christ’s righteousness and forgiveness by faith.

The wrath that God pours out in this life is but a mere preview of the eternal wrath to come.

So in 1 Thessalonians 5:9–10, Paul writes of those who believe, “God has not destined us for wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us.” God has a people among all those nations whom he has not destined to wrath but has destined to faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. And they only come to faith and escape wrath if we go and proclaim the message. We want many more people in many more nations written about the way Paul writes about the Thessalonians earlier in the letter:

For they themselves report concerning us the kind of reception we had among you, and how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come. (1 Thessalonians 1:9–10)

The wrath of God will cost somebody their life. It will either cost the unreached peoples their lives for eternity, or it will cost us Christians our earthly lives in missionary service.

Here’s the question: Dare we be so in love with our lives in this world that we will stand back while three billion lose their souls and their lives in the world to come?

I believe it was Adrian Rogers who used to say, “The gospel is only good news if it gets there in time.” The wrath of God upon the world means we need to be urgent in getting the gospel there in time.