“Who have fled to take hold of the hope offered to us.” [Hebrews 6:18]
We will first consider the question of John the Baptist: “When he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to where he was baptizing, he said to them: "You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath?” [Matthew 3:7]
I have no doubt that the Pharisees and Sadducees were very surprised to hear John addressing them in that way; for men who wish to win disciples, ordinarily adopt milder language than that, and choose more attractive themes, for they fear that they will drive their listeners away if they are too personal, and speak too harshly. There is not much danger of that nowadays, for the current thinking today is that gospel ministers instead of piercing men and women with the sword of the Spirit, only show them only its handle; they let them see the bright diamonds on the scabbard, but never let them feel the sharpness of the two-edged blade. They always comfort, and console, and cheer, but never allude to the terrors of the Lord.
That appears to be the common interpretation of our commission; but John the Baptist was of quite another mind. There came to him a Pharisee, a very religious man, one who observed all the details of external worship, and was very careful even about the most trivial matter, a firm believer in the resurrection, and in angels and spirits, and in all that was written in the Book of the law, and also in all the traditions of his father, a man who was consumed with external righteousness, a ritualist of the first order, who felt that, if there was a righteous man in the world, he certainly was that person. He must have been greatly taken aback when John talked to him about the wrath of God, and plainly told him that that wrath was as much for him as for others. Those phylacteries and the broad borders of his robe, of which he was so proud, would not screen him from the anger of God against injustice and transgression; but just like any common sinner, he would need to “flee from the coming wrath.”
I daresay that the Sadducee was equally taken aback by John’s stern language. He, too, was a religious man, but he combined with his religion greater thoughtfulness than the Pharisee did; — at least, so He said. He did not believe in traditions, he was too broadminded to care about the little details and externals of religion. He observed the Law of Moses, but he clung rather to the letter of it rather than to its spirit, and he did not accept all that was revealed, for he denied that there was such a thing as an angel or a spirit. He was a man of liberal ideas, fully abreast of the age. He professed to be a Hebrew of the Hebrews; yet, at the same time, the yoke of religion rested very lightly upon his shoulders. Still, he was not irreligious; yet here is John the Baptist talking to him, as well as to the Pharisee, about “the coming wrath.”
They would both have liked to have a little debate with John, but he talked to them about fleeing from the coming wrath. They would both have been pleased to discuss with him some theological questions, and to bring up the differences between their two religious groups, just to hear how John would handle them, and to let them see which way he would lean. But John did not waste a moment over the matters in dispute between Pharisees and Sadducees; the one point he had to deal with was the one of which he would have spoken to a congregation of tax-gathers and prostitutes, and he spoke of it in just the same way to these who practiced external religion. They must “flee from the coming wrath;” or else, as surely as they were living, that wrath would come upon them, and they would perish under it.
So John just kept to that one topic; he laid the axe to the root of the trees as he warned these hypocritical religious people to escape for their lives, or else they would perish in the common destruction which will overwhelm all ungodly men and women. This was not the style of preaching that John’s listeners liked; but John did not think of that. He did not come to say what men wished him to say, but to discharge the burden of the Lord, and to speak out plainly what was best for men and women’s eternal and immortal interests, He spoke, therefore, first, concerning the wrath of God; and, next, he spoke concerning the way of escape from that wrath.
Those will be our two topics also. First, the tremendous danger: “the coming wrath;” and, secondly, the means of escape: “Flee from the coming wrath.”
I. First, dear friends, let us think of THE TREMENDOUS DANGER which overtakes all men and women who do not flee from it.
That tremendous danger is the wrath of God. There is a wrath of God, which remains on every ungodly man and woman. Whether men and women like that truth or not it is written, “God is a righteous judge, a God who expresses his wrath every day” [Psalm 7:11]; and, also, “Whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God's one and only Son” [John 3:18]; and yet again, “Whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God's wrath remains on him” [John 3:36].
But this wrath is being delayed for a time; and, consequently, men and women do not think much either of the wrath that now is, or of “the coming wrath.” It will not, however, always be delayed. The floodgates of God’s wrath will one day be opened, and the awful torrents will come pouring out, and will utterly overwhelm everyone exposed to their fury. This “coming wrath” will in part fall upon men and women at their death, but more fully at the day of judgment, and it will continue to flow over them for ever and ever. This “coming wrath” is that of which John spoke, and of which we will now dwell on for a while.
1. I remark, first:, that this “coming wrath” is absolutely just and necessary.
If there is a God, he cannot let sin go unpunished. If he is really God, and the Judge of all the earth, he must have an utter abhorrence of all evil. It cannot be possible that he would think the same of the honest and the dishonest, of the moral and the immoral, of the sober and the drunken, of the truthful and the lying, of the gracious and the depraved. Such a god as that would be one whom men and women might rightly despise; but the true God, if we understand correctly who he is, must hate and abhor all sin. All evil must be utterly abhorrent to his pure and holy soul; and it is not only because he can do it, but because he must do it, that he will, one of these days, let loose the fury of his wrath against sin. As it is necessary, in the very nature of things, that there should be certain laws to govern his creation, so is it equally necessary, in the very nature of things, that sin must be punished, and that every transgression and disobedience must receive the exact amount of the wrath of God that it deserves. This is the inevitable consequence of sin; there is nothing arbitrary about such a result. It is fixed, in the very nature of things, and every man and woman “…will have to give account on the day of judgment for every careless word they have spoken” [Matthew 12:36]; and for every sinful action, they must appear before Jesus Christ—the judge of the living and the dead. Do not think, that when we speak about the wrath of God, that we picture God as a tyrant. We are simply telling you how things are—simply put: if you take poison, it will kill you; if you indulge in drunkenness, or if you have a disease, it will bring pain and trouble to you—likewise, sin must bring upon you the wrath of God, it can’t be any other way. Heaven and earth will pass away, but not one jot or tittle of God’s law can pass away until it is all fulfilled, and one part of that law requires that God punish all transgression, iniquity, and sin.
And if now, for a time, the full manifestation of that anger is delayed, I beg every one of you, do not therefore trifle with it. The longer God’s arm is uplifted, the more terrible will be the blow when he finally strikes. To sin against the patience of Almighty God, is to sin with a vengeance. You do, as it were, defiantly put your finger into the very eye of God when you know that he sees you sin, and yet you go on sinning because he does not immediately take vengeance upon you for all your evil deeds. It is in great love that he restrains his wrath, for he is “slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness.” But just like a torrent, that is dammed up for a while, gathers force and strength, and every hour in which it is kept back it gets to be more irresistible, so it is with “the coming wrath” when it finally comes upon you. If it has waited for some of you for seventy, or sixty, or fifty, or even for twenty years, it will come as an overwhelming flood when it finally bursts the barriers which presently hold it back. Do not play with that patience of God which is allowing you time to seek the salvation of your soul.
2. Nor is “the coming wrath” any the less sure because it is delayed.
Because the wrath of God is not instantly poured out against an evil deed, therefore men and women say, “We need not trouble ourselves. God doesn’t see our sins, or if he does he doesn’t care about them. He winks at our iniquities; he counts them as mere trifles. No harm will come to us because of them.” I can only reply to these foolish people, “Oh, if you are prepared to throw away the Bible, I can understand a little why you would talk like that; but if you really believe that the Scriptures are the Word of God, you know what the consequences of your sin must be. Concerning the wicked, it is written, “If he does not relent [turn away from his sin], [God] will sharpen his sword; he will bend and string his bow. [God] has prepared his deadly weapons” [Psalm 7:12-13]. Even if you are so foolish as to throw away your Bibles, yet, unless you think of yourselves as nothing more than a mere animal that will turn back into dust when you die, and totally cease to exist, then you must expect that there will be another state of existence in which right will be vindicated and wrong will be punished. It seems to lie upon the very conscience of men and women, in the unwritten code of intuitive knowledge, or of knowledge handed down from our fathers, that there must come a time in which God will surely expose every secret sin, and pour out his judgment on the proud and the arrogant sinner, and vindicate the rights of men and women and the rights of his own throne. It must be so; and even though the wrath is delayed for a while, it will surely come.
3. I tremble as I try to speak of this “coming wrath” because, when it does come it will surely be something very terrible because divinity enters into the essence of it.
The wrath of man is sometimes very terrible; but what must the wrath of God be like? O dear people, I have tried, these many years, humbly yet earnestly to preach the love of God, and I have never yet reached the height of that great argument, for his love is boundless; but so are all of his attributes; and if you consider any one of them, you must say, “It is so great, that I cannot fully comprehend it.” Therefore the just indignation of God against sin must be commensurate with his absolute purity. A man or a woman may think that right and wrong are mere arbitrary terms, and have no concern when wrong is done; but it is not this way with God; God is infinitely pure and holy and cannot — it is not possible that he can — look upon sin without hatred and disgust and anger. God says, through his servant Jeremiah, “Do not do this detestable thing that I hate!” [Jeremiah 44:4]. God is not indifferent to sin, rather he hates it, and he pleads with men and women not to do it because it is so abominable and so hateful in his sight.
What will “the coming wrath” be like? If God barely touches a man or a woman, as it were, with only his little finger, the strongest must at once fail and fall, the mightiest can scarcely open their eyes, and the seal of death is quickly imprinted on their forehead. Now imagine what it will be like when the hand of God will begin to plague the ungodly, when he will pour out all the vials of his wrath upon them, and crush them with his power. What will happen to them when God says, “I will remove my adversaries and severely punish my enemies?” Think, too, what must be the meaning of that terrible passage of scripture—let me repeat it to you slowly and solemnly—“Consider this, you who forget God, or I will tear you to pieces, with none to rescue” [Psalm 50:22].
Thus have I faithfully tried to set before you “the coming wrath.” Now listen to me for a few more minutes, and let me have your unbiased attention, while I speak further upon this important theme.
Who do you think are the more honest men—those who tell you clearly what the Scriptures say concerning this wrath of God, or those who smooth it over, or deny it altogether? I will not judge them; they will stand before the Judge of the living and the dead for daring to be apologists for sin, and for diminishing the dreaded thought of God’s anger against sin. But I might, without any breach of Christian love, be permitted to question the honesty of those who use flattering words to please and deceive their listeners; but I would never suspect the honesty of those who preach an unpleasant truth which grieves themselves as much as it is distasteful to those who hear it.
Let me also ask you which style of preaching has the greater moral effect on you? Will you be likely to go and sin after you have heard of God’s anger against it, or will you more readily commit iniquity when you heard it glossed over, and you are told that it is just a little thing, and that God doesn’t care too much about it?
I was in the cabin of a ship, one day, with a brother-minister who was disputing with me on the eternality of future punishment; and my friend, the Captain, came in, and said, “What are you discussing down here? The scenery is beautiful, come up on deck, and admire it.” So I said to him, “This is the question in dispute, whether the punishment of sin is eternal, or not.” “Well,” he said, “We cannot have any theological discussion right now;” but, turning to my opponent, he said, “Don’t you go on deck, and talk to my sailors about any of your rubbish. They are bad enough as they are; but if you tell them what, I heard you just say, they will swear and drink worse than ever.” Then, turning to me, he said, “You may talk to the men as much as you like; you will do them good, and not harm by telling them that God will certainly punish their sin.”
Now, there is common sense in that argument of my friend; you know that there is. That which is most likely to do good, and to repress sin, is most likely to be right; but that which gives me latitude to offend my conscience, leads me to suspect whether it could ever have come from God at all, and makes me seriously doubt whether it can be true.
And what will be the consequence if it should turn out that we are mistaken when we preach to you concerning the wrath of God? What losers will
there be among us who have fled to Christ for refuge? But suppose it should turn out that we are right, then where will you be, you who have despised the wrath of God? We have two strings to our bow; but, to my mind, you have none at all. I would not like to lie down on
my deathbed in the hope that death would be an eternal sleep; that would be a miserable hope even if it could ever be fulfilled. I would not like to risk my eternal destiny simply on the hope of being annihilated because I was an unbeliever. It would be a wretched thing
to hope for; but what if even that poor hope is false, which it is? Where would I be then?
Thus, my friends, I have set before you, as best I can, the tremendous danger of God’s coming wrath.
By this question, he seemed to imply that there is no way of deliverance from “the coming wrath” but by fleeing from it.
Sinner, you cannot endure the wrath of God. If your ribs were made of granite, and your nerves were made of brass, you could not endure the wrath of the Almighty; no, not even for a moment. If a man had a toothache, how dreadful it would seem to him to have to bear that pain for twelve months, even if he knew that there would be an end to it then; but what must the anger of God be like when he comes to deal with our entire life of sin, and to punish our sin for ever and ever? We cannot bear it; we must flee from it. What does this mean? How do we flee from the coming wrath?
1. First, we flee from the coming wrath by taking immediate action.
2. Fleeing means, not only immediate action, but swift action.
He that flees for his life does not creep and crawl; he runs at his greatest speed, and he wishes that he could ride on the wings of the wind. No pace that he can reach is fast enough for him. Oh, if God the Holy Spirit will make you feel your imminent danger, you will want to fly to Christ with the swiftness of the lightning-flash; you will not be satisfied to linger as you are even for another hour. What if that balcony over there should suddenly collapse on top of you? What if God should give you a fatal stroke while you are still in your sins? What if, in walking home tonight, you should walk into your grave? What if your bed should become your tomb? This may happen to any one of you tonight, so there is no time to linger or delay. Haste is the word for you; God warns you, saying, “Today, if you hear [my] voice, do not harden your hearts; I tell you, now is the time of [My] favor, now is the day of salvation” [Hebrews 3:15; 2 Corinthians 6:2].
3. To flee also means to run directly to your object.
A man who flees for his life does not want any indirect, roundabout roads, he takes short cuts, he jumps over hedges and ditches that he may get where he wants to be in the shortest possible time. So going straight to Jesus is the only direction for you tonight. Some people will recommend that you read books, which I am certain you cannot understand, for no living soul can; or perhaps you should meet with persons who want to explain to you some wondrous mystery. Listen to them, if you like, after the great business of your salvation is over; but right now you do not have any time for mysteries, you have no time for puzzles, you have no time to be confused and perplexed; the one thing you have to do right now is to run straight to Jesus, straight to Jesus. You are a sinner, and he is the only Savior for sinners; so, trust him, God help you to trust him, and thus to find immediate salvation! You have a severe sin problem, thus you must flee straight to Christ. The plan of salvation is not a thing that is hard to understand. “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life;” and they will never be condemned; for they have passed from death to life.” There is the gospel in a nutshell; grab hold of it, and live by it. You have no time for anything else, and you have no need of anything else; so flee, “flee from the coming wrath.”
Notice how John the Baptist explained to those Pharisees and Sadducees the way in which they had to flee. He told them,
1. First, that they must repent.
There is no going to heaven by following the road to hell. There is no finding pardon while continuing in sin. Depend upon it, Mr. Drunkard, you will not be forgiven for your drunkenness if you still go on with your drinking. Don’t let the man who is immoral imagine that he can go on with his sin and yet be forgiven. Don’t let the thief dream that there is any pardon for him unless he quits his evil course, and tries to make restitution as best he can to those whom he has wronged. There must be repentance.
2. Secondly, that repentance must be practical.
Note how John put it: “Produce fruit in keeping with repentance” [Matthew 3:8]—evidences of true repentance is a new life. It is no use feeling sorry for yourself and crying, and praying a prayer of salvation with a lie in your right hand, and then going home to swear and drink, or to avoid Sunday worship, and to live as you like, and all the while still hoping to enter heaven. No, sin and you must part, or else Christ and you can never keep company. Do you remember that message that John Bunyan thought he heard in his head when he was playing sports on Sunday morning. He suddenly stood still with the stick in his hand, for he thought he heard a voice saying to him, “Will you turn away from your sins, and go to heaven, or keep your sins, and go to hell?” That is the alternative which both the law and the gospel put before men and women. “Flee from the coming wrath;” but there is no fleeing from wrath except by repentance of sin, which will be evidenced by the fruits of repentance: a real change of heart and life.
3. Then John went on to say to the Pharisees and Sadducees that they must give up all the false hopes which they had cherished: “Do not
think you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.”
“No,” answered John, “you must abandon all such false hopes as that.” And if any of you, dear friends, have said, “We will be okay, because we are regular church people;” or if you have said, “We are okay, for we are Baptists, we are Independents; our father and mother, and our grandfather and grandmother were good Christian people.” Ah, yes! and so may your great grandfather and great grandmother have been, but your pedigree will avail you nothing unless you personally repent of your sins, and lay hold of Christ as your Savior. Nor is there anything else upon which you can depend for salvation. Your baptism, your church-going, your taking of the Lord’s supper, your reciting of church prayers, your family prayers, your giving of your money, everything of your own put together will all be less than nothing, and vanity, if you trust in it. You must flee from all such false hopes as that, and get a better hope, even that of which my second text speaks: “That by two unchangeable things in which it is impossible for God to lie, we who have fled to take hold of the hope offered to us” [Hebrews 6:18].
John the Baptist did not tell his listeners all this, for he did not come to preach the gospel to them. He came to preach the law, but he did sufficiently indicate where they must go, for he said to them, “Among you stands one you do not know” [John 1:26]. “He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire” [Matthew 3:11]. It is to him, even to Jesus, that you must flee; if you would be saved, you must be among those who have fled for refuge to lay hold of the hope set before you. That is the real refuge for sinners—laying hold of Christ, getting a faith-grip on Jesus as the one and only atoning sacrifice, looking to him with tearful but believing eyes, and saying, “Jesus, Son of God, I trust in you; I put myself into your hands, and leave myself there, that you may deliver me from the coming wrath.”
I pray, brothers and sisters, whoever you are, you who think you are so good, be anxious to get rid of all that fancied goodness of yours. I beg you, if you have any self-righteousness about you, to ask God to strip it off of you at once, I would like you to feel as that man did, who had a forged bank note and some counterfeit coins in his possession. When the policeman came to his house, he was anxious not to have any of it near him; likewise, shake off your self-righteousness. You will be as surely damned by your righteousness, if you trust in it, as you will be by your unrighteousness. Christ alone, the gift of free grace from God, this is the gate of heaven; but all self-satisfaction, all boasting, all exaltation of yourself above your fellow-men, is wicked and disastrous, and will surely be deadly to your spirit for ever.
How does Christ deliver us from “the coming wrath?” He does it by putting himself into our place, and putting us into his place.
Oh, this blessed plan of salvation by substitution—that Christ would take a poor, guilty sinner, and set him up there in the place of acceptance and joy at the right hand of God, and that, in order to be able to do so, Christ would say, “Here comes the great flood of almighty wrath; I will stand right where it is coming, and let it flow over me” And you know that it did overflow him until he sweat, as it were, great drops of blood, and more, until he cried aloud, “My God, my God why have you forsaken me?” and still more, until he cried, “It is finished,” and he bowed his head, and gave up his spirit.
“He bore, that you might never bear,
His Father’s righteous ire;” —
and so, suffering in your place, and putting you into the place of acceptance which he himself so well deserves to occupy, he saves you from “the coming wrath.”
I used to think that, if I ever had a chance to share this wondrous story of “free grace and dying love,” everybody would believe it; but I have long since learned that the heart of man is so hard, that he will sooner be damned than be saved by Christ. Well, you must make your choice, you must make your choice for yourselves; only do me this one favor, when you have made your choice, do not blame me for having tried to persuade you to act more wisely than I fear your choice will be. I sometimes tremble as I think of the account I have to give concerning the many thousands who crowd this place to listen to my voice. What if my Master should say to me, at the end, “You flattered them; you tried to run with the times; you didn’t dare to preach to them the old-fashioned gospel, and to tell them of hell, and of judgment, and of atonement by blood?” No, my Master, you will never be able to say that to me. With all my faults, and weaknesses, and imperfections, I have sought to declare your truth, so far as I knew it, to men and women. Therefore, my dear friends, I shake my clothes, free of your blood. If any one of you will reject Christ, I will have nothing to do with your damnation. Commit spiritual suicide if you will; but I will not be the murderer of your soul, nor will I act like Saul when he asked his armor-bearer to kill him. I implore you to “flee from the coming wrath.” Escape by repenting of your sins, and by believing in Jesus Christ; and do it this very moment, for you may never have another opportunity to do so. May the Lord, in his infinite mercy, grant you grace to trust in Jesus! Amen and Amen.