You're here: » Articles Home » Horace Bushnell » Christ and the Salvation » 17 - THE WRATH OF THE LAMB.

Christ and the Salvation 17 - THE WRATH OF THE LAMB.

By Horace Bushnell

      "And said to the mountains and rocks, Fall on us and hide us from the face of him that sitteth on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb. For the great day of his wrath is come; and who shall be able to stand?"-Rev. vi, 16-17.

      The lamb is the most simply innocent of all animals. Historically also it had become a name for sacrifice. For this twofold reason, Christ is set forth as the Lamb. Under this name, as fulfilling the conception of gentleness and sacrifice in God, we give him ready welcome. We magnify him as the Lamb, and expect to magnify him even eternally, in ascriptions offered to that dear name. Even such as are most remote from the life of religion are commonly satisfied with conceptions of God under this gentle, patient figure; making up, not seldom, schemes of divine character and order, that have only the innocuous way of the lamb-just as thousands of the devotees of liberty will magnify liberty, as being the whole substance of government; counting it really the same thing as a release from being governed. Yet liberty is but justice secured; and, in just the same manner, the Lamb is but the complemental gentleness of God's judicial vigor.

      All which appears to be represented by a most paradoxical, jarring, combination of words, that predicates wrath of the very lambhood of Christ. To speak simply of the wrath of God is bad enough to some; it is even a real offense. They recoil from such expressions as unworthy, and as indicating, either a degree of irreverence in those who use them, or else low ideas of God, such as may not be revolted by the ascription of a temper so unregulated and so essentially coarse. It is commonly no sufficient answer to such, that the scriptures of God speak of his wrath in this way without compunction; for the scriptures, they will suspect, are not as far refined themselves, in the moral tastes and proprieties, as they might be. But here we have "the wrath of the Lamb;"-which not only violates a first principle of rhetoric, forbidding the conjunction of symbols that have no agreement of kind or quality, but also shocks our cherished conceptions of Christ, as the suffering victim, or the all-merciful and beneficent friend, in either way, tile Saviour of sinners. Who will ever speak of a lamb's wrath? Who, much more, of the wrath of the Lamb of God? And yet the scripture does it without any sense of impropriety, or moral incongruity-what shall we make of such a fact?

      Simply this, I answer, that while our particular age is at the point of apogee from all the more robust and vigorous conceptions of God in his relation to evil; while it makes nothing of God as a person or governing will; less, if possible, of sin as a wrong-doing by subject wills; we are still to believe in christianity, and not in the new religion of nature; in Christ, and not in the literary gentlemen. It does not, in my view, require a very great degree of nerve to do this. Only we must have the right to believe in the real Christ, and not that theologic Christ which has so long been praised, as it were into weakness, by the showing that separates him from all God's decisive energies and fires of combustion, and puts him over against them, to be only a pacifier of them by his suffering goodness. Our Christ must be the real king-Messiah-and no mere victim; he must govern, have his indignations, take the regal way in his salvation. His goodness must have fire and fibre enough to make it divine.

      We take the principle, in brief, without scruple, that if we can settle what is to be understood by the wrath of God, we shall not only find the wrath in God, but as much more intensely revealed, in the incarnate life and ministry of Christ, as the love is, or the patience, or any other character of God. Since he is the Lamb, in other words, the most emphatic and appalling of all epithets will have its place, viz.,-the wrath of the Lamb.

      We want very much, in English, a word that we have not, to express more definitely the true force of the original scripture word [] occurring in this relation. We have a considerable family of words that we can employ for this purpose; such as wrath, anger, indignation, fury, vengeance, judgment, justice, and the like, but they are all more or less defective. Indignation is the most unexceptionable, but it is too prosy and weak to carry such a meaning with due effect. Wrath is the term most commonly used in our translation, and it is really the best, if only we can hold it closely enough to the idea of a moral, in distinction from a merely animal passion; else, failing in this, it will connect associations of unregulated temper that are painful, and as far as possible from being sacred. It requires in this view, like the safety-lamps of the miners, a gauze of definition round it, to save it from blazing into an explosion too fierce to serve the purposes of light.

      We understand then by wrath, as applied to God and to Christ, a certain principled heat of resentment towards evil doing and evil doers, such as arms the good to inflictions of pain, or just retribution, upon them. It is not the heat of revenge, girding up itself in fiery passion, to repay the personal injuries it has suffered; but it is that holy heat which kindles about order, and law, and truth, and right; going in, as it were, spontaneously, to redress their wrongs and chastise the injuries they have suffered. It is that, in every moral nature, which prepares it to be an essentially beneficent avenger, a holy knight-errant champion for the right, and true, and good. It can be let in to nerve a resentment, or to bitter a grudge, and commonly is, in souls given up to resentments and grudges; but it was ordained specially to be such an equipment of moral natures, that goodness would be an armed state, capable not only of beneficence, but of inflicting pain where pain is wanted, in the fit vindication of order and right.

      How it works, we may see, almost every hour, in some example greater, or less, in its magnitude. Only to see a large boy in the street harassing and persecuting a small one, stirs the natural wrath-principle in us, in such a manner that, if we do not actually lay hands upon him ourselves, we could easily be much satisfied if a considerable chastisement should overtake him. So, if an officer of the law arrests a woman in the street, haling her away to justice, you will see a multitude, excited by her outcries, rushing quickly together, wanting to know what a strong man can be doing in that fashion with a woman, and about half ready to interfere, before they have learned whether it is a case of oppression or not. We had an illustration, a few days ago, of this wrath-principle in human bosoms, on a much grander scale-the whole New England people, or rather the whole nation itself, waiting, as it were, by the gallows of a Webster, and giving their spontaneous sanction to his death, by their emphatic and hearty Amen. Under the solemn wrath-principle of which I am here speaking, every healthy and robust soul took the penalty with appetite, and with a certain good revenge, stood stiff and firm by the impartial and righteous sentence of the law. So if this great and awful rebellion against which we are now in arms, should finally collapse and go down, and the friends of Union, so long and bitterly oppressed by their tyrants, should rise upon them and drag them to summary justice, compelling them to expiate, by their death, the most terrible and bloodiest, and really most impious, crime ever committed on earth, save the crucifixion of Jesus itself, who of us would blame, or in the least regret, the judicial severity of the retribution? Why, the unspeakable desolations, the latitudes and longitudes of the woe, would even take on a smile, in our thought, and we should find ourselves thanking God, even before we knew it, that he has put a wrath-principle in human bosoms for the avenging of so great a crime. Nay, we should be quite willing to imagine this wrath-principle residing also in the very ground itself, and crying unto God, from every blood-sodden field and region, even as the blood of Abel did, in Cain's one, solitary, merely initial, comparatively insignificant, murder.

      In all these and similar examples that could be cited without number, there is, you perceive, a function of wrath, or an instinctively vindicatory function, that pertains to all moral natures, and arms them to be the supporters of justice and the avengers of wrong. They have this high moral instinct, or function, not as a vice to be extirpated or stifled, but as an integral part of their inmost original nature. It is constituent, consubstantial, and is to be eternal.

      Having distinguished, in this manner, what is to be understood by wrath, as predicated, whether of God or of the Lamb, we are ready to proceed with the main subject of inquiry. Is it then a fact that Christ, as the incarnate Word of God, embodies and reveals the wrath-principle of God, even as he does the patience or love-principle, and as much more intensely? On this point we have many distinct evidences. And-

      1. It is very obvious, at the outset, that Christ can not be a true manifestation of God, when he comes in half the character of God, to act upon, or qualify, or pacify, the other half. He must be God manifest in the flesh, and not one side of God. If only God's affectional nature is represented in him, then he is but a half manifestation. And if we assign him, in that character, a special value, then we say, by implication, what amounts to the worst irreverence, that God is a being to be most desired when he is only half presented, and when his other half is either kept back, or somehow smoothed to a condition of silence. I take issue with all such conceptions of Christ. He is God manifested truly, God as he is, God in all his attributes combined, else he is nothing, or at least no fair exhibition. If the purposes of God, the justice of God, the indignations of God, are not in Him; if any thing is shut away, or let down, or covered over, then he is not in God's proportions, and does not incarnate his character.

      2. It will be noted that Christ can be the manifested wrath of God, without being any the less tender in his feeling, or gentle in his patience. If God may fitly comprehend these opposite poles of character, so also may Christ; and if the fires of God's retributive indignations are no contradiction to the fact that he is love, no more is there any such contradiction to be apprehended, when these indignations are displayed in Christ. Indeed we have occasions in the history of Jesus, when he actually displays the judicial and the tender, most affectingly, together and in the very same scene. "And when he had looked about on them with anger," says Mark, "being grieved for the hardness of their hearts." Here we have the wrath, [] in a connection of feeling so tender and loving, that he is even grieved. His indignations have quickened his more tender sensibilities, and these, in turn, have fired his indignations. And we have exactly the same conjunction over again, when we find him even weeping over Jerusalem, and, at the same moment, denouncing against it, in stern retribution, the day of its final visitation. "If thou hadst known the things that belong to thy peace! but now they are hid from thine eyes!" How tenderly, and yet how firmly spoken is the wrath. And then, while the tears of his compassion are scarcely dried away upon his face, he goes directly into the temple and drives out, in a terrible outburst of indignant zeal, the whole crowd of hucksters and traders that have made even that sacred place, to his pure feeling, no better than a den of thieves. His tears did not extinguish his wrath, and his wrath did not stifle the tenderness that issued in tears.

      Indeed these two poles of sensibility, wrath and tender love, are not only compatible; I must go farther and say, that the tenderest, purest souls will, for just that reason, be hottest in the wrath-principle, where any bitter wrong, or shameful crime, is committed. They take fire and burn, because they feel. Furthermore you will observe that the man whose dull-hearted phlegm keeps prudent silence, utters no condemnation, burns with no indignant fire, when some wicked cruelty or oppression is perpetrated, is, in almost every case, deficient in the finer, nobler, and more tender sympathies. His cold, apathetic, politic, sour nature is just about as defective in the gentle sensibilities, as it is in the fiery and strong impulses.

      3. It is another and distinct consideration that God, without the wrath-principle; never was, and Christ never can be, a complete character. This element belongs inherently to every moral nature. God is no God without it, man is no man without it. Take it away from God and he is simply Brama, a mere Fate, or Infinite Thing-no Governor of the world, but an ideal, in the neuter gender, of the True and the Good; a Beauty that lies in sweet lassitude on the world, for literary souls to make a religion of, for themselves. Take it away from man, and he is only paste, or, at best, an animal; for though animals have the capacity of brute passion, or infuriated excitement, yet that moral passion or vindicatory instinct, of which we are now speaking, they as little share as they do the instinct of language, or that of scientific inquiry. They have no moral ideas, and of course have no moral armature of wrath to set them on the side of moral ideas, and steel them, as in principled resentment, to be avengers of the same. Now it is this principled wrath, in one view, that gives staminal force and majesty to character. It is in this principle of the moral nature that it becomes a regal nature. In these indignations against wrong, it champions the right and judges the world. Without this, or apart from this, submission to wrong is pusillanimity, forgiveness to enemies a flimsy and feeble habit, love a merely clinging devotement. All such tender passivities become great, only as they consciously consent to bathe, what fiery judgment has a right to burn. There is no dignity in them, till the grand vindicatory instinct, the governmental wrath-principle, is found united with them. This also it is, in our humanity, that is always volunteering government, and is, in that manner, the capacity of society-all movements of redress, all institutes of penalty, all executed pains of justice, being issued, as it were naturally, from this. It is, in fact, a kind of electric battery moral that God has put in the body of society, to shock, or stun, or kill, the violators of order and right. No wrong-doer can so much as touch it, without being struck and paralyzed by it. And it is in virtue of this same regal or judicial instinct, that God's moral nature, including his lovely and gentle sympathies, becomes everlastingly electric, in its wrath against misdoing and wrong. He governs with a will, he towers in personal majesty, he is great in his authority, because the regal attribute is in him. Which if we suppose to be true in no sense of Christ, if we take him to be a gentle way of goodness only, separated wholly from this flaming kind of vigor-soft only, and submissive, and patient-we put him in a grade almost unmoral, and show him making feeble suit to the world, in the merely plaintive airs of suffering. The character is weak, unkingly, unchristly, and it can not be more, till the wrath, is added to the patience, of the Lamb.

      4. It is a conceded principle of justice, that wrongdoers are to suffer just according to what they deserve. It was unavoidable, therefore, that if Christ brought in new mercies and gifts of grace, the liabilities of justice must be correspondently increased-not diminished, as many try to imagine. As the score of justice, too, is augmented, the judicial wrath must be, and be also as much more forcibly manifested-just as we shall find it to be, in fact, in the new assertion made of God, by Christ's personal life and doctrine. First he asserts the principle-"For unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall much be required." Next he asserts the new liability that has actually accrued under it-"If I had not done among them the works that none other man did, they had not had sin, but now they have both seen and hated both me and my Father." Then again he makes specific denouncement both of the principle and the liability, declaring to the cities that reject his ministry, that they are bringing a doom of judgment on them, worse than God ever put upon the worst and wickedest of the past ages-"Woe unto thee, Chorazin, woe unto thee, Bethsaida; it shall be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon at the day of judgment than for you." "And thou, Capernaum, it shall be more tolerable for the land of Sodom, in the day of judgment, than for thee." His apostles, too, only represent him fitly, when they say-"treasurest up unto thyself wrath, against the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God;" or again-"Of how much sorer punishment suppose ye shall he be thought worthy, who hath trodden under foot the Son of God, and hath counted the blood of the covenant wherewith he was sanctified an unholy thing, and hath done despite unto the Spirit of grace." The wrath-principle and justice, you will thus perceive, have the same place under christianity that they had before. The divine government is not made new, but is only new revealed. God is not less just, nor more merciful, but more fitly and proportionately expressed.

      5. One of the things most needed in the recovery of men to God, is this very thing; a more decisive manifestation of the wrath-principle and justice of God. Intimidation is the first means of grace. No bad mind is arrested by love and beauty, till such time as it is balked in evil and put on ways of thoughtfulness. And nothing will be so effectual for this, as a distinct apprehension of the wrath to come. Then, when it is brought to a condition of thoughtfulness by the apprehension of damage and loss, the vehemence of God and his judgments starts a correspondent moral vehemence in its own self-condemnations; when of course it is ready to be melted by the compassions and won by the beauty of the cross-that is born of God. Now it is no longer swayed by interest and fear, but having come into God's occupancy and become spirit, as being permeated by God's impulse, it ranges in liberty with God himself. The precise thing not wanted, in this view, is to get justice out of the way. To know that the avenging wrath-principle of God's moral nature is forever hushed, would be fatal. The weak point of sin is that it can tremble-does inwardly tremble even in its boldest moods. Too low in its moral conceptions to be taken by goodness and love it for its own sake, it can be seized and shaken by the rough hand of wrath. Hence the wrath is wanted, and at this point the attack of salvation begins. It could not be a salvation by rose-water, or by any means less stringent than God's roughest enforcements.

      6. We can see for ourselves that the more impressive revelation of wrath, which appears to be wanted, is actually made in the person of Christ. I will not stop here to speak of the driving out of the money-changers from the temple, which has been the scandal of so many, just because of the imagined over vehemence of the wrath, and which his disciples took as being the zeal that was to eat him up; I will not stay upon the fiery denunciations and imprecations of woe by which he scorched the oppressions and the sanctimonious hypocrisies of the priests and the Pharisees; I will not recur again to the terrible judgments he denounced upon so many guilty cities, and among them even upon Jerusalem itself; but pass directly to the fact that no other preacher ever had appealed as strenuously as he to the sense of fear, or employed with as little restraint the artillery of God's penalties. The terrible and abundantly unwelcome, or unpopular, doctrine of future punishment is specially his. Previously, the sanctions of religion had been temporal, and the future state itself had been only dimly revealed; save that in two or three single passages of the prophets it had finally obtained a more distinct recognition and pronounced its more fearful awards. But Christ, when he came, opened up formally and distinctly the great world of the future, and pressed home the claims of duty and repentance by the tremendous sanctions of eternity. He uses, without scruple, in his language, the most appalling terms, which, though they are certainly figures of speech, are yet such figures as show that he is in no mood of delicacy, but is keyed up in the wrath-principle, as intensely and heartily as he is in the love-principle-speaking to men as offended majesty should, when it goes to rebels in arms. He denounces what he calls "everlasting punishment," "destruction," "death," "fire," "the worm that never dies," "the gnashing of teeth," "thirst," "outer darkness," "torment." I can not stop to settle the precise meaning of these figures. I only ask you to note, first, that they are new, almost every one of them, never heard of before, even under what is called the hard and pitiless rigors of the Old Testament; and, secondly, that they are from Christ, the all-merciful Saviour, and tenderly suffering friend of the world. We call him the Lamb, for God's mercy was never before revealed, by a sacrifice of simple, unoffending innocence. And just. so these are the wrath of the Lamb; which never before shook human bosoms by such words of doom and sanctions of eternal majesty.

      Once more Christ is appointed, and publicly undertakes, to maintain the wrath-principle officially, as the judge of the world-even as he maintains the love-principle officially, as the Saviour of the world. He consents, that is, when every attempt to do better by men, than they have deserved, has failed to win them, to fall back on the merely retributive regimen of his kingdom, and do by them as they deserve. He even declares that authority is given him to execute judgment, because he is the Son of Man; for as he has come into the flesh to unfold God's human sympathy and tenderness, so, to maintain what is only fit proportion, he must needs be clothed in the rigors of judicial majesty. He, then, is to be the judge, as he himself openly declares, and before his judgment-seat all mankind, including all his rejectors, shall be gathered. He will separate them to their fit award. He will say, "ye did it not to me." He will speak the "depart." Whoever has joined himself wholly to evil, put himself to the uses of evil, that is, of the devil and his angels, he will consign to the devil and his angels, according to their real affinities and according to what they deserve. And this is the wrath, and this the day of wrath; "for the great day of his wrath is come, and who shall be able to stand?"

      But it will be objected, I suppose, by some, that in the view now presented, the hope of a possible salvation is quite taken away. You can not, any more, deserve God's favor, how then can you be saved, unless God's justice be somehow satisfied in your behalf? You could not, I answer, if God were obliged to execute justice, having no option concerning it. But exactly contrary to this, the wrath-principle in him is only that judicial impulse that backs him in the infliction of justice, whenever justice requires to be inflicted. And it does not require to be inflicted always; it never ought to be, when there is any thing better that is possible. The law of right, or righteousness, is absolute and eternal. Not so the vindicatory principle of justice. Since penal justice is only a matter of means to ends in government, backed by the wrath-impulse, the means and occasions are to be regulated by counsel, and the wrath moderated by counsel. It is with God, in these matters, as it is with us. We are never bound to do by men as they deserve, simply because the wrath-impulse moves us to this, if only we are able to do what is better for them, and involves no injury to others. We do not want our justice satisfied before we can forgive. No more does God. As certainly as we may, at any time, do by our enemy and for him, better than he deserves, however pungently we may feel the wrong he has done us, so also may God. Something may be necessary on his part to save an appearance of laxity, when he forgives-some kind of honor paid to the instituted order of justice, that will keep it in as high respect as the exact execution of it. Christ will see to that. I can not here describe the provision he has made; enough that when he remits the penalties of justice, in his moral distributions, he shows most convincingly still, that he adheres to justice in his feeling as firmly as ever. It does not follow, when I forgive my enemy, that I condemn any the less heartily, or hotly, the wrongs he has done me. The very heat, too, of my rebukes, and of my decisive measures of redress, may be the means, in part, by which he is subdued, and the redress of justice made unnecessary.

      Put it down, then, first of all, at the close of this great subject, that the New Testament gives us no new God, or better God, or less just God, than we had before. He is the I Am of all ages; the I Am that was, and is, and is to come; the same that was declared from the beginning-"The Lord God, gracious and merciful, forgiving iniquity, transgressions, and sin, and that will by no means clear the guilty."

      At the same time, let. no one be concerned to find how God's justice has been satisfied, or please himself in the discovery how Christ has made up the needed satisfaction, by the pains and penalties of his cross. For if Christ has satisfied God's justice, then who is going to satisfy the justice of Christ? If the offered Lamb has propitiated, or appeased, the wrath of God against transgressors, then a question of some point remains, viz., who is going to propitiate the wrath of the Lamb? Furthermore, if the lighter penalty of justice has been taken off, on the original score of retribution, who is going to lift the more tremendous liabilities of justice incurred by those who have trodden under foot the blood of the Son of God, and cast away forever all the glorious mercies and helps of the cross? O, it grieves me to think of the poor, speculated inventions we have wearied ourselves to set up. on this summit, and most central point, of gospel truth! Wood, hay, stubble-God grant that when it is burned we may not perish in the fire ourselves.

      How plain is it, also, in such a view of God and the inevitable wrath-principle of his nature, that the charity, so called, of our modern philanthropism, is an effeminate and false charity. It reprobates all condemning judgments and all inflictions of penalty. It does not really believe in government, or sin as an act of responsible liberty. Sin is only misdirection, and the misdirecting power is circumstance. Are we not all what our conditions make us to be? Why, then; do we lay severe judgments; or even torments of penalty, on the head of transgression? Just contrary to this, we have seen that no man even is a proper man, whose moral nature is not put in armor by the wrath-principle. Much less is God true God, when no such central fire burns in his bosom, to make him the moral avenger of the world. Neither let any one argue. that God, as he is good, must desire the happiness of all, and that, being omnipotent also, what he desires he will certainly bring to pass. What if it should also be true, that there is a wrath-impulse in his nature, burning to have every wrong chastised by the pain it deserves; is not the argument as good to show that the chastisement will certainly be inflicted? The argument, in fact, holds neither way, least of all in showing that God will make every creature happy; for we know, as a plain matter of fact, that he does not. There may seem to be a considerable show of reason in the vaunted liberality of this new philanthropism; still it is only that weak light of moonshine which the higher light of day dispels. The eternal King is King indeed, and no such dispenser only of the confections and other sweet delectations of favor, as this feeble gospel of philanthropy requires him to be. O, the wrath of the Lamb!-there is the rugged majesty of meaning that transgression wants to meet! Smooth and soft things only will not do. As certainly as God is God, and Christ his prophet, he will not come bringing pardons only, suing and suing to the guilty, but over against all obstinacy he will kindle his fires of justice, and by these he will reign-even where by love he can not.

      We are brought out thus, at the close, just where John began, when he came to make prophetic announcement of the new dispensation. He looks, you may see, for no merely soft salvation, but for a great and appalling salvation rather. "Now the axe will be laid," he says, "unto the root of the trees. He that cometh after me is mightier than I, his fan is in his hand, he will thoroughly purge his floor, the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire." The doctrines of religion will now be more spiritual and the tests more severe. God will not be changed, but will only be more perfectly shown. Responsibilities will not be diminished, but increased with the increase of light. If Christ bends low at his cross, no such fearful words of warning and severity as his were ever before spoken. The Old Testament is a dew-fall in comparison with the simply judicial, spiritual, unbending, and impartial wrath of the New. And this exactly is the impression, we can see, of Christ himself-putting forth his most ominous warning in the tender shape even of a blessing-"Blessed is he whosoever is not offended in me." He speaks also of a taking away, and a still farther taking away, in his parable of the. talents, where he seems to be looking distinctly on the fact that, as life progresses, every soul is descending more and more closely down to justice; losing out the conditions and prospects, one after another, of being treated better than it deserves; to be finally suited in the only alternative left-treated in strict justice as it deserves. In his tenderest accents of mercy, there is always blended, as it were, some reverberative note of judgment; as if there was a voice behind saying, behold, therefore, the goodness-and severity of God! It does not signify as much when he unmasks his judgment throne, and shows the gathering in, and tells the issues to be made, as it does that his very love is so visibly tempered with dread, in the sense of what his rejectors are doing. O, how far away the conceit of, that clumsy speculation which shows him smoothing down the rugged front of justice. No such conception of his gospel mission has he, as we can easily see for ourselves. Christianity to him, my friends, is not the same thing that it has been to many of you. Doubtless it is a great salvation to him; and you may also think it such yourselves; but if you take it simply as a penal satisfaction for your sins, placing its value wholly in that, so great an abuse will scarcely suffer it to have been, or in fact ever to be, any real salvation to you at all. You presume upon the cross. You take it for granted that Christ is going to do by you better than you deserve, whereas that depends in part on you. If you can not be turned away from your sin, then he is preparing to do by you exactly as you deserve. Christ understands christianity-hear him therefore say, with a manner of dread how deep, in words that toll in a warning as deep for you-Whosoever shall fall on this stone shall be broken, but on whomsoever it shall fall, it will grind him to powder.

Back to Horace Bushnell index.

See Also:


Like This Page?

© 1999-2019, All rights reserved.