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Something that I’ve seen asserted in various books, articles, and sermons is the statement that Jesus only preached about God’s wrath to the religious people of his day. The idea is that Jesus had two basic messages: one of God’s wrath and the other of God’s grace. The first message was for the church and the religious. The second was for sinners. The application, then, is that we should also only preach grace to sinners.

While I absolutely believe that we should never preach about God’s wrath without also preaching of His grace and the salvation we have through Jesus, I don’t believe that this bifurcation of Jesus’s teaching is accurate. Jesus preached both God’s wrath and His grace to everyone, and so should we.

The first question to ask is did Jesus ever speak on wrath or punishment to sinners and those outside the religious leaders? To answer that question, we need to decide which portions of Scripture we should consider. Some believe that we can only look to the “red lettered” verses. But are those the only words of Jesus?

I think it’s important to remember that all of Scripture is God breathed. All of the Bible is the Word of God. The verses in the red letters are not more inspired than the rest. So, before we consider what Jesus spoke in the gospels, let’s look at some other portions of Scripture where there is a message or warning of God’s wrath to sinners.

One of the best known passages is probably from Jonah. After Jonah stops running from God, he spends days proclaiming a message from God to the people of Ninevah, definitely a group of sinners, no question. What’s the message God told Jonah to give to Ninevah?

Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s journey. And he called out, “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” (Jonah 3:4, ESV)

And what was the result of this message of impending destruction?

The word reached the king of Nineveh, and he arose from his throne, removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes. And he issued a proclamation and published through Nineveh, “By the decree of the king and his nobles: Let neither man nor beast, herd nor flock, taste anything. Let them not feed or drink water, but let man and beast be covered with sackcloth, and let them call out mightily to God. Let everyone turn from his evil way and from the violence that is in his hands. Who knows? God may turn and relent and turn from his fierce anger, so that we may not perish.”
When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil way, God relented of the disaster that he had said he would do to them, and he did not do it. (Jonah 3:6-10, ESV)

The people repented and believed in God. And the message God used to turn their hearts? One of wrath and destruction.

Of course, God’s wrath is a frequent theme in the prophets, but what about in the New Testament? Well, John the baptist (or baptizer) is called to prepare the people for the coming of the Savior. What is his message?

He said therefore to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him,“You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?Bear fruits in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham. Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”

And the crowds asked him, “What then shall we do?” And he answered them, “Whoever has two tunics is to share with him who has none, and whoever has food is to do likewise.” Tax collectors also came to be baptized and said to him, “Teacher, what shall we do?” And he said to them, “Collect no more than you are authorized to do.” Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what shall we do?” And he said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or by false accusation, and be content with your wages.”

As the people were in expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Christ, John answered them all, saying, “I baptize you with water, but he who is mightier than I is coming, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn,but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

So with many other exhortations he preached good news to the people. (Luke 3:7-18, ESV)

What was John’s message? One of coming destruction and wrath. Who was John preaching to? The people of Israel, certainly, but also tax collectors and soldiers are specifically mentioned. And these exhortations were considered “good news!”

This use of warnings and exhortations is the basis of the Reformed understanding of the first use of the law: to convict sinners of our sin. John Calvin wrote in his Institutes:

Thus the Law is a kind of mirror. As in a mirror we discover any stains upon our face, so in the Law we behold, first, our impotence; then, in consequence of it, our iniquity; and, finally, the curse, as the consequence of both. He who has no power of following righteousness is necessarily plunged in the mire of iniquity, and this iniquity is immediately followed by the curse. Accordingly, the greater the transgression of which the Law convicts us, the severer the judgment to which we are exposed. To this effect is the Apostle’s declaration, that “by the law is the knowledge of sin,” (Rom. 3:20). By these words, he only points out the first office of the Law as experienced by sinners not yet regenerated. In conformity to this, it is said, “the law entered that the offence might abound;” and, accordingly, that it is “the ministration of death;” that it “worketh wrath” and kills (Rom. 5:20; 2 Cor. 3:7; Rom. 4:15). For there cannot be a doubt that the clearer the consciousness of guilt, the greater the increase of sin; because then to transgression a rebellious feeling against the Lawgiver is added. All that remains for the Law, is to arm the wrath of God for the destruction of the sinner; for by itself it can do nothing but accuse, condemn, and destroy him. (Institutes 2.vii.7)

While the message of wrath should be tempered with the message of grace, to deny this first use of the law is to truncate the gospel. To understand our need for a Savior, we must first understand the depth of our sin. God’s reconciling peace means nothing until we know we are separated from God by the offense of our sin. Some say that sinners, especially those with no church background, are already well-versed in their own misery and have no need of being shown the truth of their sin. Certainly we should be gentle in our application here. Our message should be kind, but it isn’t kindness or love to not tell people that they are dying apart from Christ. Most people think they’re not that bad particularly when they compare themselves to others.

Back to our question, I believe that Jesus spoke throughout the Scriptures on both God’s wrath and God’s mercy. But what about in the gospels. Did Jesus preach on God’s wrath in the gospels? Certainly. But who was the audience? Let’s look at some passages.

In Matthew 13, Jesus is preaching to a crowd by the sea. He gave the following parable:

And he told them many things in parables, saying: “A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seeds fell along the path, and the birds came and devoured them. Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and immediately they sprang up, since they had no depth of soil, but when the sun rose they were scorched. And since they had no root, they withered away. Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. Other seeds fell on good soil and produced grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. He who has ears, let him hear.” (Matthew 13:3-9, ESV)

He explained the parable this way:

And he told them many things in parables, saying: “A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seeds fell along the path, and the birds came and devoured them. Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and immediately they sprang up, since they had no depth of soil, but when the sun rose they were scorched. And since they had no root, they withered away. Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. Other seeds fell on good soil and produced grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. He who has ears, let him hear.” (Matthew 13:3-9, ESV)

In Luke, when Jesus is sending out the 72 disciples, He speaks of the destruction of whole cities:

“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, sitting in sackcloth and ashes. But it will be more bearable in the judgment for Tyre and Sidon than for you. And you, Capernaum, will you be exalted to heaven? You shall be brought down to Hades.
“The one who hears you hears me, and the one who rejects you rejects me, and the one who rejects me rejects him who sent me.” (Luke 10:13-16, ESV)

Again in Matthew, Jesus is speaking to the crowd in parables:

“But when the king came in to look at the guests, he saw there a man who had no wedding garment. And he said to him, ‘Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding garment?’ And he was speechless. Then the king said to the attendants, ‘Bind him hand and foot and cast him into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ For many are called, but few are chosen.” (Matthew 22:11-14, ESV)

And in Luke, Jesus is speaking to the crowd:

There were some present at that very time who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. And he answered them, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.” (Luke 13:1-5, ESV)

And again:

He went on his way through towns and villages, teaching and journeying toward Jerusalem. And someone said to him, “Lord, will those who are saved be few?” And he said to them, “Strive to enter through the narrow door. For many, I tell you, will seek to enter and will not be able. When once the master of the house has risen and shut the door, and you begin to stand outside and to knock at the door, saying, ‘Lord, open to us,’ then he will answer you, ‘I do not know where you come from.’ Then you will begin to say, ‘We ate and drank in your presence, and you taught in our streets.’ But he will say, ‘I tell you, I do not know where you come from. Depart from me, all you workers of evil!’ In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth, when you see Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God but you yourselves cast out. And people will come from east and west, and from north and south, and recline at table in the kingdom of God. And behold, some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last.” (Luke 13:22-30, ESV)

This is a small sampling of Jesus’s teaching recorded in the gospels. While it is absolutely true that Jesus spoke with great kindness and gentleness to His people, His message to the crowds, both sinners and religious, was one of both God’s wrath and God’s mercy. We should be equally kind and gentle in our gospel presentation, but we should not shy away from speaking the whole truth, preaching the message of reconciliation we’ve been given.

All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. (2 Corinthians 5:18-21, ESV)