Can We Still Talk about... ? Part 1: The Wrath to Come

By Taylor Burton-Edwards

Worship planning can we still talk about 400x354
Luca Signorelli, The Wrath to Come. Public Domain.

This is part 1 of a series of entries that will invite conversation around theological issues critical to Methodism, as least as John Wesley presented it, that seem to be increasingly challenged by a variety of forces and sources in our churches and in wider theological conversation.

Upcoming topics in this series will include Sin, Judgment, Justification, the New Birth, Sanctification, Perfection, Accountability and others our blog authors may choose to add.

And if you'd like to add to the series, but aren't yet a blog author, just contact me (worship at gbod dot org) and I'll be glad to add you.

Can we 21st Century United Methodists still talk about "the wrath to come"?

Early Methodism
John Wesley assumed one both could and must talk about the wrath to come during the Methodist movement he led in the 18th century.

Indeed, believing in and responding to the reality of "the wrath to come" was foundational to being a Methodist in the first place!

This may seem a strange thing to say about Wesley or the Methodists. While their preaching did refer to the wrath to come on many occasions, their primary emphasis was on the grace of God-- prevenient grace, justifying grace, sanctifying grace, and both responding to and cooperating with God's grace.

Where Wesley and the Methodists wanted people to head was precisely in response to and toward that grace.

But responding and moving toward that grace was and is also a matter of moving away from something else.
And included in that "something else" was "the wrath to come."

So significant was a sincere desire to flee the wrath to come that the Wesleys set it as one of the prerequisites for joining a trial class meeting. The journals of John Wesley and the sermons of the Wesley brothers speak of "fleeing the wrath to come" no less than 39 times. It mattered to them. They and other early Methodists pressed the point with people, on many occasions. As we still have in our Discipline in the section describing the General Rules, "There is only one condition previously required of those who desire admission into these societies: "a desire to flee from the wrath to come, and to be saved from their sins."(More on sin in part 2!).

This desire was not simply a one-time experience. This wasn't about scaring people about the coming wrath through a preaching service and getting them to say they wanted to flee on that day. There were many so moved, John Wesley reminds in Sermon 9, "The Spirit of Bondage and Adoption," but being moved once was not enough.

They feel the burden of sin, and earnestly desire to flee from the wrath to come. But not long: They seldom suffer the arrows of conviction to go deep into their souls; but quickly stifle the grace of God, and return to their wallowing in the mire.

What the Wesleys and the Methodists intended was that people would continue to desire to flee the wrath to come throughout their lives and show it by how they lived-- growing in holiness of heart and life as they lived out the General Rules along with others watching over them, and each other, in love.

In other words, one could not even start to journey to becoming Methodist, much less continue it, unless one both believed the wrath of God was a reality and was ready to act on that reality-- not just once, but for a lifetime.

The Wrath to Come Recedes
Methodism in the what would become the US was known, widely known, for its energetic preaching, including but not limited to its preaching about the wrath to come.

But, as Scott Kisker has documented in Mainline or Methodist, as Methodists overall began to move more and more in the direction of respectability through the 19th century, their preaching tended to focus less and less on doctrinal matters, and in particular "the wrath to come." By the late 19th century in the US, those who were still teaching or preaching this doctrine with any intensity tended to be "lumped in" with the increasingly negative aspersions that "popular" or "respectable" US culture regularly cast upon the rising fundamentalist and pre-millenialist movements within US evangelicalism.

Even in the Wesleys' own day, preaching the wrath to come was not associated with respectability or popularity. John commented on this in Sermon 28, "Discourse on the Sermon on the Mount, 8"

O who shall warn this generation of vipers to flee from the wrath to come! Not those who lie at their gate, or cringe at their feet, desiring to be fed with the crumbs that fall from their tables. Not those who court their favour, or fear their frown; none of those who mind earthly things.

But if there be a Christian upon earth, if there be a man who hath overcome the world, who desires nothing but God, and fears none but Him that is able to destroy both body and soul in hell; thou, O man of God, speak, and spare not; lift up thy voice like a trumpet! Cry aloud, and show these honourable sinners the desperate condition wherein they stand! It may be, one in a thousand may have ears to hear; may arise and shake himself from the dust; may break loose from these chains that bind him to the earth, and at length lay up treasures in heaven.

The Wrath to Come Loses All Its Loveliness
If the 19th century saw the beginning of the recession of the wrath to come from Methodist preaching, by the mid-twentieth century such proclamation was more than absent: It was nearly anathema. We were to focus instead on the infinite value of each person and the love of God for all. To raise the spectre of coming wrath was to damage self-esteem, or do psychological violence to people. In some theological circles, notions of any final end or conflagration generating a new creation were dismissed as primitive mythology, fairy tales at the best and dangerous at the worst, and to be taught as such if at all.

The early 21st century has brought its own challenges. There is the post modern and "emergent" pushback against theologies that include hell or any punitive understandings of atonement, particularly within some of the more rigorously Calvinist and fundamentalist groups that made up the New Religious Right in the 1980s and 1990s. The pushback against talk of any wrath to come extends beyond the church as well, as Gabe Lyons and David Kinnaman showed in their book, unChristian, documenting the profoundly negative attitudes of non-Christian young adults and even many evangelical Christian young adults toward such notions. Love Wins, the clever, captivating and controversial 2011 release from Rob Bell, perhaps placed the grave marker for any further talk of wrath to come as a definitively final outcome for anyone for a whole generation of younger evangelicals in the US.

How do we United Methodists in the US, whose doctrinal standards affirm "the resurrection of the dead; the righteous to life eternal and the wicked to endless condemnation" (Confession of Faith, Article XII) as well as repeatedly warn of "the wrath to come" (Sermons 3, 4, 9,16, and 28, all part of our doctrinal standards as well), reconcile our teaching with the disfavor and even outright opposition to this doctrine?

Can we even still talk about "the wrath to come" in this environment?

If so, how?