Fire and Brimstone

“It is worth noting that the ‘fire and brimstone’ school of theology who revel in ideas such as that Christ was made a sacrifice to appease an angry God, or that the cross was a legal transaction in which an innocent victim was made to pay the penalty for the crimes of others, a propitiation of a stern God, find no support in Paul. These notions come into Christian theology by way of the legalistic minds of the medieval churchmen; they are not biblical Christianity.”
(William Neil in The Cross of Christ by John Stott, p202)

“The cross was not a commercial bargain with the devil, let alone one which tricked and trapped him; nor an exact equivalent…to satisfy a code of honour or technical point of law; nor a compulsory submission by God to some moral authority above him from which he could not otherwise escape; nor a punishment of a meek Christ by a harsh and punitive Father; nor a procurement of salvation by a loving Christ from a mean and reluctant Father; nor an action of the Father which bypassed Christ as Mediator. Instead, the righteous, loving Father humbled himself to become in and through his only Son flesh, sin and curse for us, in order to redeem us without compromising his own character… The biblical gospel of atonement is God satisfying himself by substituting himself for us.”
(The Cross of Christ by John Stott, p188)

The biblical gospel is one that promises peace with God and a life of holiness. This is a gift of God; faith. Knowing God and his peace is our rock and foundation in good times and in troubled times. The gift is precious and it breaks our hard hearts so that we might receive grace to live in the knowledge of our own forgiveness.

Our lives so often are at odds with this truth, as we live as part of the world. Through the message of the cross we discover God is above all, through all and in all; a redeeming presence in our lives to free us from the bonds of sin. We find a calling to live as the redeemed in the world, as those not of the world.

We are forgiven, is a sweet sustaining truth that anchors us in the storms of the day. God is good. As we feed on this truth it enters us, we digest it and we are formed by it. Yes, God is good. Our hearts are stirred by it but, how often do our stomachs churn as we encounter our own failings, our own culpability in the injustice and cruelty of our times? What was sweet to the taste becomes bitter in our stomachs. Our hearts cry out for justice and mercy. As we dwell in the truth and listen to our hearts, the voice of Christ becomes clearer. Being saved is not being self-satisfied and inward looking.

This is what the life of faith looks like. We are given the truth, it sets us free and then we live the truth and grow in the truth. The truth is at odds with the daily life we live. Outwardly, we live and breathe and have our being in a world in bondage to sin, subject to chance and time, but inwardly we carry the presence of God however fragile. Living out the truth and persevering in it forms us.

This life becomes our blessing; strength for the day and hope for tomorrow. As we draw near to God he draws near to us and we are kindled into a life of blessing. However useless we feel, weak in our humanity, it is enough to live by our revelation in our heart.

This is becomes the power of our testimony. It doesn’t look like much of a victory. Is this how we proclaim that God is alive and active a counter narrative whispers? We can think that in the face of martyrdom we might stand and it would be glorious. But standing in the onslaughts of the day is a testimony?

How many times does the accuser parade our failings before us and the Father? How many times does the accuser, our adversary, parade our failings before God? My pitiful failings paraded before my Father in heaven? Surely they deny the truth of my salvation Satan insinuates.

To be martyred is to be wondered at, but the daily onslaught of stress, emotional vulnerability and the expectations of life- the daily grind of troubles is poisonous. What can we do? What can we say? We proclaim Christ crucified. His death has saved me from sin. The cross is the victory. As we gaze on the cross are we healed?

We live this life of hope in contrition; brokenness in the face of our own fallibility and find victory in the knowledge of the Holy. It is enough. This is God’s grace to us and his peace in us.

Look at Revelation 14: 18 – 20

 …“Swing your sickle now to gather the clusters of grapes from the vines of the earth, for they are ripe for judgement.” 19 So the angel swung his sickle over the earth and loaded the grapes into the great wine-press of God’s wrath. 20 The grapes were trampled in the wine-press outside the city, and blood flowed from the wine-press in a stream about 180 miles[d]long and as high as a horse’s bridle.

Here it is, fire and brimstone to shock you. Not in the Old Testament but at the end of the New. Having taken the message so far set before us, we might have hoped that John’s long journey of faith might have resulted in a gentler gospel. Have we been led astray by our own sentimentalism so far? Am I speaking peace where there is no peace and we should be more fearful that our actual condition is that God is holding on to us as we dangle over the abyss, only to let go of our hands to let us slip at the last in to the pit where we deserve to be as some have suggested?

The grapes are fully ripe and are being piled up into the winepress of God’s wrath where holy feet trample on them, releasing their juice. The blood of the evil ones rises as high as a horse’s bridle for miles. The fruitfulness of the grapes is their evil. The whole event takes place outside the gates of the city. The image is of God treading to a pulp those who have not repented and are evil and their blood is a symbol of death.

God has allowed the fruit to ripen; evil comes to its full fruition by God’s will. God allows it to flourish. This is the reality- the real world. Hope calls in the face of daily evil and together we are taught to pray for deliverance from evil. Hope is that, in the end, God’s wrath wreaks vengeance on evil and treads out the life of all evil. God’s goodness is satisfied as, in wrath he at the last treads out the life of the evil. Vengeance belongs to God but none the less there is vengeance, fulfilling a visceral need in our being.

Maybe we recoil at the monster God portrayed, and wonder how we can trust him when he teaches us to love our enemies then tramples to death his enemies. Where has the message of the gospel gone that enables us to forgive? Are we fearful that we have not forgiven enough to be forgiven and we will find ourselves in the winepress? Or is our comfort, there is no winepress? Silly John!

The story of the cross tells us Jesus was taken outside the city gates and he took the wrath of God in our place. Jesus’ blood flowed outside the city gates. God in Christ gave himself so that we are not crushed. God is satisfied in substituting himself for us so that in Christ he is crushed. The blood of Christ was shed for all men; it was a mighty flow.

The blood that flows, I see as the blood of Christ. Can this gruesome picture awaken in us the scale of what Christ has achieved? Do we come closer to understanding what Christ has achieved by looking at the violent portrayals of God and realise they have achieved their fullness on the cross? In the disgust, can we feel wonder? How is this good is rational question? As it lays bare our doubt, can we find reassurance?

Jesus gave himself for our sins, for now, for today. The evil, present age has an end and God is good. I hold there is a hell for the evil, but that where Jesus finds life, it is his nature to redeem life. What is God like? Look at the cross. As to what hell looks like, look at the cross. And as has been said by another, heaven is not yesterday or tomorrow but here and now, the ever-present age revealed in Christ.

Galatians 1:3-5

May God the Father and our Lord Jesus Christ[b] give you grace and peace. 4 Jesus gave his life for our sins, just as God our Father planned, in order to rescue us from this evil world in which we live. 5 All glory to God forever and ever! Amen.

 

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