The only thing scarier than the wrath of God

  • Hannah Ploegstra
  • 15 November 2017

The Reformation’s highlight of grace is supposed to be good news—but for some people, grace is an even scarier concept to embrace than the idea of hell and God’s wrath. When we invite people to surrender to God’s grace, to trust his love and depend upon his provision, we may be asking them to do something that life has proven to be perilous and foolish. Surrender... trust... depend... for many people, these are terrifying commands.

The reason God’s grace is so scary (to more people than you might imagine) is that it is so completely foreign. In this world, to surrender is to be defeated by your enemy, and brings the promise of loss, abuse, and humiliation. When we let down our defenses, we’re sure to be hurt. We can’t trust anyone—we don’t even trust ourselves—and the promise of love is a very shaky thing. What kind of love? That familiar kind that hoards and drains the ‘loved’ one? No thanks.

Grace is also scary because it requires us to stop working for ourselves. In the world of the curse, where painful toil and sweat are the only way to survive, to stop working means deprivation and death. People sense this to be true spiritually as well as physically, so to tell them that God requires nothing from them, only that they abide in his Son, can feel as risky as quitting a job.

We live in a world of sin’s making, not just in that we die and that our work is futile, but in that the thorns and thistles of our hearts have filled the world and our lives all around us. We know how deeply we have wronged others, and so we know how deeply they are capable of wronging us. In fact, Micah tells us that the punishment for sin is sin and the lack of peace that it produces even in our own homes:

The best of them is like a brier,
the most upright of them a thorn hedge.
The day of your watchmen, of your punishment, has come;
now their confusion is at hand.
Put no trust in a neighbour;
have no confidence in a friend;
guard the doors of your mouth
from her who lies in your arms;
for the son treats the father with contempt,
the daughter rises up against her mother,
the daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law;
a man’s enemies are the men of his own house. (Mic 7:4-6) 

We can’t trust each other because we know we are not trustworthy. The more we sin, the less we trust. And since our sin offends God more than anyone, naturally we assume that he is the one we can trust the least. Sin poisons our ability to comprehend grace, and unless God reveals his Son, the provision of grace—his sweetness, his beauty, his delight, his overwhelming goodness—we can never trust him. Our sin won’t allow it.

This is the plight of every unregenerate person, and we who bring the gospel need to remember that the difficulty of faith in God’s grace goes way beyond the intellect. The power of God’s Spirit must show us something our eyes have never seen: a truly sinless man who spilled his blood on behalf of his enemies. Only this selfless, sinless reality can overturn the logic of sin that tells us we can’t trust anyone. 

We know from history that grace is a hard thing to accept, because (as the Reformation shows us) the church constantly needs to purge doctrines that take matters back into the control and resources of people.

But the Bible also recognizes the difficulty of receiving God’s grace, reminding us to “not throw away your confidence, which has a great reward” and to ensure “that no one fails to obtain the grace of God” (Heb 10:35, 12:15). We are told “not to receive the grace of God in vain” (2 Cor 6:1). Clearly the apostles recognized the frightening difficulty of grace for sinners, but knew to embrace it, because the wrath of God is actually scarier than his grace (Heb 10:29). This is why they continually take us back to a view of Jesus, that sinless one.

Even as believers we must monitor our confidence in the grace of God. Even in the church—perhaps especially in the church, where we are commanded to walk in unity with one another—sin can take us back to the thorn patch of our relationships with other sinners, where we can fall back into living as if grace is a thing to be afraid of. Many Christians are still actively, willfully resisting the grace of God as it is manifested in the body of Christ, because, having been hurt by members of that body, they can plainly see that grace is a scary thing.

Salvation comes through grace alone, but grace is a scary, risky thing. It’s the spiritual equivalent of jumping off a cliff in faith that someone will be there at the bottom to catch you. We who are saved need to remember our own tendency to seek out ways of relating to God and one another that divert our confidence off of God’s grace and back onto our own control. We need to conduct our prickly human relationships with faith that God’s grace will sufficiently protect us and provide for us. We need to fix our eyes on Christ, the thornless one, from whom all God’s grace flows to us.

How else can we tell the world that God’s grace is a thing they should be excited about?