I must confess that I would easily trade 50 of today’s sermons for just one sermon by a great expositor such as D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones of last century. His deep and rich treasure chests make most sermons today look like mere tap water. So much preaching today leaves me cold I must say. But I just love to soak up some of the older great preachers, whether a Spurgeon, or a Boice, or a Stott, or so many others.
Consider a lengthy series of sermons Lloyd-Jones preached on the book of Romans. His careful and meticulous exposition of the book covered the years 1955 to 1968, and was eventually turned into 14 volumes. It is a masterful set of sermons, and no one should ignore this masterful work.
Of course Romans itself is a masterful work, perhaps the crown of Pauline theology. So to have around 5000 pages devoted to this marvellous epistle is a wondrous treat. One can never get enough of reading these glorious sermons. The only thing better would have been to hear them preached in person in London.
Here I want to draw attention to just one verse – yes, just one verse: Romans 1:18. It is a vitally important verse in Paul’s argument in Romans, and follows on from vv. 16-17 which is the whole of the epistle in summary, and the entire gospel in shorthand.
After summarising the gospel in these two verses, Paul launches into a lengthy elaboration of what the gospel is all about. And this begins in v. 18: “The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness.”
Now the incredible thing is that Lloyd-Jones does not spend just one chapter on this verse. Nor two. He spends a full three chapters on this one verse, totalling 55 pages. And the riches found in these chapters are amazing. One could hear a year’s worth of sermons today and they would not equal the value of these three chapters.
One can read them in 30 or 40 minutes, but they need to be read again and again. How many of today’s sermons are even worth a second listen? I am just stunned when I read such works, and wonder how we can have lost so much from the pulpit today.
But here I want to glean a few nuggets from these three chapters, and try to capture a bit of the flavour of what is found here. Lloyd-Jones notes that Paul begins his whole theological argument with the wrath of God: “My dear friends, it is not enough that you and I should be clear about the evangel; our methods of evangelism must correspond to the Scriptures as much as our message does, and here is the method. He starts with the wrath of God, not with the needs of people as such, not with the things which were worrying them, not with that sin which gets them down, which they cannot overcome; nor with their unhappiness, and so on. Not at all! He does not mention these things. Instead, he speaks of the wrath of God!”
He reminds us that this doctrine permeates all of Scripture. It is found all over the Old Testament. And it is all over the New Testament as well. John the Baptist preaches it; Jesus preaches it; the disciples preach it. Lloyd-Jones explains the importance of all this:
“Now this is so vital for this reason: it is this particular thing, that we are talking about at the moment, that differentiates the Christian message from all the cults. There are so many cults being offered to men in the world today, and they all come and they offer them happiness; they offer them deliverance from something that gets them down. That is always their approach; of course, it is bound to be, they must have something to recommend themselves, and they make their particular message so attractive…
“The one thing that makes it impossible for you ever to put this gospel in line with the cults is that it invariably starts with God, and holds men and women face to face with Him and their relationship to Him. Christian people, let us never so represent the gospel that men and women may mistake it for a cult. Let us be scriptural in our method as well as in our message.”
But the remarkable thing here is what Lloyd-Jones says about the mark of a cult 50 years ago is today the mark of most of our churches – even evangelical churches! Today how many so-called Bible-believing churches put things back to front?
How many churches today put all their emphasis on how men can be served, made to feel good, have their problems solved, make lots of money, and be successful? How many churches today are simply preaching a man-centred gospel which puts men as the priority, as if we are doing God a favour by adding him into the mix?
Lloyd-Jones has nailed it here, and it is such a tragedy that so much of the modern church has moved so far away from the gospel which Paul and the disciples proclaimed. As Lloyd-Jones says, “The business of the gospel is to bring people to God, and to reconcile them to God. Not to fill churches! Not to have good statistics! But to reconcile men to God – to save them from the wrath to come.”
That must be our message. It is God who has been wronged and it is God that we need to get right with. It is not about flattering people and making them feel good about themselves. It is about letting everyone know that our sin is so heinous that Jesus had to come to earth and die for our sins. We deserve the wrath of God, but he graciously offers us a way out.
But as Lloyd-Jones rightly notes, most people do not want to hear about this: “I suppose really there is nothing about the Christian message that is so hated, so much objected to, as this particular doctrine. And therefore I conceive it to be my duty in expounding this great passage, not simply to note and to mention the wrath of God, but to show you its integral place, its vital place in biblical preaching, in New Testament evangelism.”
Ten times alone in this epistle Paul speaks about the wrath of God. It is no mere tangential doctrine, but the heart of the gospel. If so, we may need to be far less flippant and cavalier about what we teach and preach: “I cannot understand a jocular evangelist. . . . Go back and read the lives of the men whom God has used in the mightiest manner, and you will invariably find that they were serious men, sober men, men with the fear of the Lord in them; ‘knowing the terror of the Lord’, they all said with the Apostle Paul. They were not afraid of the people or what they might think of the message; they were only afraid of what God might think of it, and so they started with it and proclaimed it, and God used it.”
The truth is, we can never fully appreciate the love of God until we understand the wrath of God. And we can never fully understand the wrath of God until we understand the enormity of our sin. “God hates sin. Sin is abhorrent to God. There should be no difficulty about the term ‘hate’. If you recognize love in God you must recognize hate also. All that is opposed to God is hateful to God.”
He continues, “it is clear that the very character and being of God as holy, makes this doctrine quite inevitable. You cannot mix light and darkness. You cannot conceive of sin as existing in the presence of God. God’s holiness insists upon this doctrine of the wrath of God. God must deal with sin. God must show his hatred of it. It is part of His own holiness and His greatness and glory that He should do so….
“The wrath is as much revealed as is the righteousness of God by faith. Therefore I do not hesitate to say that ultimately you cannot believe verse seventeen unless you believe verse eighteen as well – indeed, you will never see the real need for verse seventeen if you do not believe verse eighteen. The two things go together.”
Yes the two are inseparable. Calvary only makes sense when both the love of God and his wrath against sin are held together. “If you do not see the wrath of God when you look at the cross of Calvary’s Hill, it is very certain that you do not see the love of God either. It is there that you see the wrath of God revealed. . . . It is only as you have some conception of the depth of His wrath that you will understand the depth of His love.”
There is so very much more terrific material in these three chapters. His writing on the glory of God – what it means and how we are to pursue it – is priceless. So too is his exposition on what sin is – as opposed to sins. But all that will have to wait for another article. Suffice it to say that this sort of preaching is rarely heard nowadays.
Not only is this style of preaching quite rare (that is, detailed and careful expository preaching) but the message is rarely heard as well. Just ask yourself when was the last time you heard the wrath of God mentioned in a sermon in your church. Or judgment, or sin, or holiness, for that matter.
These seem to be long-lost doctrines that almost never get a hearing today. Yet if these vital biblical truths are not preached, then all the sermons in the world on the love of God will of necessity only be weak, ineffectual, and of course only half the truth.
We need to return to the preaching of old, the message of old, and the whole counsel of God. We do ourselves no favours when we water down the gospel to please men, fill auditoriums, and be popular. We instead simply dishonour God and let down those we are meant to be reaching.