The Lord's Day Morning
May 7, 2006
“Anger and the Glory of God”
Dr. J. Ligon Duncan III
Amen. If you have your Bibles, I'd invite you to turn with me to Ephesians, chapter four, as we continue to work our way through this great letter of the Apostle Paul.
Let me remind you that from Ephesians 4:17 to the end of the chapter, the Apostle Paul is pursuing essentially the same message, repeated and applied specifically to various areas of the Christian life. And the message is this: Christians, having been saved by the grace of God… Christians, having been made new creations through the finished work of Jesus Christ and the application of that work to us by the Holy Spirit, who has caused us to die to the old man and to live to the newness of life as new creations in Christ Jesus…Christians are to live differently from the world. Christians are not to be like unbelievers. They are not to live in ways that cause them to be confused with unbelievers as to their hearts, as to their lives, as to their desires, as to their standards, as to their aims and goals. They are to be distinct in this world.
And the Apostle Paul has continually said that is important for at least two reasons. One, he says it's important for the display of God's glory to the world. The Apostle Paul says our living distinctively as Christians gets God glory in this world. As the world looks at the church and has to admit ‘those people are different, and they manifest a reality of God at work in them that we cannot deny.’ And thus God is glorified by believers living distinctly as Christians. And so, especially as we live together distinctly as Christians, God gets glory in the church.
But there's a second concern that Paul has, and it's a concern that's been very much on the face of this whole chapter, Ephesians 4, and that is the concern for the unity of the body. The Apostle Paul knows that when we do not live distinctly as Christians it compromises the unity of the body. It sows dissention in the body. It divides the body. And whereas God is to get glory in this world by the diversity of the church living together in unity and fellowship, in harmony, in mutual service and forbearance…whereas God is to get glory from that, when we do not live distinctly as Christians, it robs God of glory in the church by bringing about disunity and dissention.
Last week we looked at truth-telling. Very obviously, truth-telling promotes the unity of the body of the people of God, it promotes the unity of the church, and thus it witnesses to God's glory displayed in His church.
This week we come to the issue of anger. So Paul goes from stepping on one of our toes to stepping on another. Before we hear God's word, let's look to Him in prayer.
Heavenly Father, we thank You for Your word. Your word is a lamp to our feet and a light to our way. Your word discloses the secret things of our hearts, things that are often hard for us to see. Your word is truth. It shows us the way of life; so we pray, O God, this day, that You would show us the truth, that You would open our eyes to see it and appreciate it, and to embrace it; that by Your Spirit You would apply that truth to our hearts, and that we would live as You have taught us in Your word, in humble reliance upon the grace of Your Holy Spirit. We pray this in Jesus' name. Amen.
Hear God's word, in Ephesians 4:26:
“Be angry, and yet do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and do not give the devil an opportunity.”
Amen. And thus ends this reading of God's holy, inspired, and inerrant word. May He write its eternal truth upon our hearts.
The Apostle Paul has already urged us in this passage to put on the clothing of Christians, so that in our life together we are to manifest the reality of God's saving grace at work in us by the way that we are different from the world. And that will serve not only to foster our fellowship and communion and shared life together, our closeness and unity and mutual serving of one another, but it will also bring glory to God in the world. And interestingly, when Paul gets specific about how we put on the unique clothing of the new man, of the new creation, of the Christian, it isn't about articles of clothing at all. There's not some special outfit that the Christian wears that distinguishes him or her from the world. It's actually qualities of character and behavior, grace-wrought attributes of our character, that serve as the clothing that witnesses to the world that we are different, that God has been at work in us.
And last week he mentioned the quality of truth-telling…that we were to wear that; just as a fireman puts on his uniform to go fight a fire and a policeman puts on his uniform to go serve as a public servant and to police the city, so also the Christian puts on truth-telling as a component part of the new life in Christ. And that truth-telling sets us apart from the world, bears witness to God's glory, and actually promotes unity in the church, because, whereas untruths divide the people of God, rupture the fellowship of the family of God, truth-telling brings the people of God together, and grows the people of God together, and increases our union and communion and our experience thereof with one another.
And now he comes to anger. It's interesting what Paul thinks is important for the unity of the body and for the witness to the world, isn't it? We’ll be very interested when we get to the end of this list to ask the question, “Why did Paul pick these examples?” I think by the time we get to the end of this list, we’ll be very impressed that, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, he has indeed chosen very important practical examples of how to live distinctly as Christians.
Today he comes to the issue of anger, and I want you to see three things that he says to us about anger, and about how it can either rob God of glory and bring disunity to the body, or in our biblical governance of it, it can bring God glory and contribute to the unity of His body.
I. A specific prohibition against sinful anger.
The first thing I want you to see is right there in verse 26: “Be angry, and yet do not sin…” the Apostle Paul says. This is a specific prohibition against sinful anger. Paul is giving a command to Christians. He's not saying be angry and yet do not sin, and if you do that you can save yourself. He's not saying do these good things and you will be saved. He's saying, no, God has by His Spirit brought you from darkness into His marvelous light. He has caused the old man in you to be crucified with Christ, and you are a new creation; therefore, live out of that glorious grace of God that He has given to you in Jesus Christ. Put on the clothing of a Christian, and do not give way to sinful anger. His command is, here in verse 26, “In your anger, do not sin.”
Now, before I say what that means positively, I need to stop and say at least two things about what it does not mean negatively. First, this is not a command to be angry. Don't read the passage “Be angry” as if the Apostle Paul is saying ‘Look, it's five o’clock. You haven't been angry yet today. To be a good Christian, you need to be angry now.’ This is not a command. He's not saying it's really important for you to stop and be angry right now. Both sides of that and need to be held together. “Be angry, and yet do not sin.”
In other words, Paul is saying ‘In your anger, when you express anger, make sure that you are not expressing anger sinfully, or expressing sinful anger.’ It's a command not to be angry, but to refrain from sinful anger. That's very important for us to say.
Now, that having been said, it leads us to a second thing we need to say. This is not a declaration by the Apostle Paul that all anger is sin.
I remember hearing a liberal seminary professor once say, “I can prove that Jesus Christ was a sinner.” And he turned in the several passages in the Gospels to where Jesus, in righteous indignation and hot wrath, cleansed the temple of those who were selling the various sacrificial animals, overturning the tables of the money lenders and driving them out. And he said, “Aha! You see? Jesus got angry. That proves He was a sinner.” Wrong! All anger is not sin, and the Apostle Paul's very words to us about refraining from sinful anger imply that. But it is explicitly stated for us in both the Old and New Testaments about God and about Jesus.
Did you know that in I Kings 11:9 it tells us that God was angry with Solomon? Now, you’ll have to go and look at I Kings 11:1-8 to see why God was angry with Solomon, but I think you’ll agree after you read those verses that God was justified in being angry with Solomon; in fact, that God would not have been a good God, a righteous God, or a just God, if He had not been angry with Solomon.
Or if you were to turn to II Kings 17:18, in that long passage where the author of Kings stops to tell you why it was that the Northern Kingdom disappeared and ceased to exist…and for 17 verses he tells you all the things that the kings of the Northern Kingdom of Israel had done. They had caused the people to worship Baal; they had caused the people to worship Asherah; they had caused the people to worship Molech. They had given their own children in flames in sacrifice to false gods. And when you get to II Kings 17:18 and you find out that God was angry with Israel, everything in your soul says, “Lord, You were right to be angry with Israel!”
And notice, by the way, God in both of those instances was not simply angry at sin, He was angry with sinners. We often say God loves the sinner and hates the sin, and there's something very important and true about that truth. But you also need to understand that God is angry with people, and not simply with acts. He was angry with Solomon when Solomon married many foreign wives, who led him astray from his fidelity and devotion to the one true God. He was angry with Israel when Israel strayed into idolatry. His anger comes to rest on people. Does not the cross teach us that? That His righteous anger found its place on the head of His own Son?
But you say, “Oh, that's the Old Testament.” Read Hebrews 12:29 recently? It's the passage after the author of Hebrews has said that we don't come to the thunderbolts and lightning of Mount Sinai; we come to Mount Zion. How does that chapter end? “Our God is a consuming fire.”
You say, “Yeah, but that's not Jesus.” Read the Gospels lately? Remember in Mark 3, when Jesus is going about healing. It's the Sabbath Day. It's the seventh day; it's the Old Testament Lord's Day. And there are people actually following Him around trying to catch Him breaking God's law, and He's trying to heal people who are in desperate need. And those people are standing around waiting to accuse Him, to see if He's going to do something unlawful. And He turns to them, and He says, ‘Let me ask you a question: Is it more righteous to heal someone on God's day, the Sabbath Day, or to attempt to snuff their life out?’ because that's what they were trying to do with Him. They were trying to find something that they could get on Him so that they could put Him to death. And they didn't say a word to Him. And do you know what it says in the next verse? That He was angry! And then He healed.
He was right to be angry. They were taking what God had given in His Law to be a blessing, and they were turning it into an instrument to do wickedness, and it vexed His soul. The same thing when He turns over the tables of the money lenders and drives out those who were selling the sacrificial animals in the temple. This isn't some sort of an irrational display of sinful anger. This is righteous indignation on the part of the Savior.
The Book of Revelation, in Revelation 6:16, tells us about “the wrath of the Lamb.” Oh, there is some anger that is righteous, to be sure. In fact, my friends, B.B. Warfield said,
“A man who cannot be angry cannot be merciful. The person who cannot be angry at things that thwart God's purposes and God's love towards people is living too far away from his fellow men ever to feel anything positive towards them.”
But that's not Paul's focus today, but we needed to say that in passing, because if we see this as a blanket command saying that all anger is wrong, we’ll have missed Paul's point.
One day over a dozen years ago, a woman came into Dr. Doug Kelly's office in tears. And she was wrestling with anger, and she poured out her story to Dr. Kelly. Her husband had been unfaithful to her — maritally unfaithful. And she wanted to save her marriage, she wanted to see them reunited in life and in their marriage together, but she was struggling with anger. And she said, “Dr. Kelly, I'm wrestling with my anger, and I'm so sorry that I've got this anger in me. It grieves me that I've got this anger.” And he simply responded to her – and I can't actually repeat in polite company the words that he said to her, but he said to her, “You ought to be angry! You have every reason to be angry. It would be sinful for you to not be angry about what your husband has done. It's a gross violation of God's Law! God is angry about what your husband has done!”
Now there are some kinds of anger that are right, but that's not Paul's focus here. Paul's concern for us is that so much of our expression of anger is sinful. He's telling us here to be on guard against sinful anger. He's giving us a strong command against sinful anger because it undermines the unity of the body and it robs glory from God, and the Apostle Paul wants to frame it for us in that way so we’ll recognize what a cosmic issue this is. The Apostle Paul is wanting us to understand…Do you realize that when you indulge in sinful anger, you rupture the body of Christ? Do you realize that when you engage in sinful anger, you rob God of glory?
The very fact that Paul would pause and give this as an example of something important for the unity of the body and for God's glory in the world is a reminder of how insidious anger can be in taking over our hearts. It can do it, and we don't even realize that we're eaten up with anger. And so the Apostle Paul is raising the stakes for us. He wants us to understand how serious the issue of anger is: it robs God of glory; it undermines the unity of the body. And so the Apostle Paul is saying ‘Do not let your sinful anger divide the body of Christ. Do not let it rob God of glory.’
And you say to yourself, “How do I know that I've got a problem with sinful anger?” Well, it may have been manifested to you by your friends. They might have shared with you troubles that they have had with you because of your sinful anger. Or maybe it's your husband or your wife who has spoken to you about your sinful anger. Or maybe it's when you assess your anger you realize that you get angry because you don't get what you think you ought to get. And you think about it, and you realize, “You know, it's really about me. This anger is really about me. I think I'm being kept from getting something that I ought to have had, and I'm angry about it.”
Maybe it's in the attitude that you have towards people that you’re angry with — there is a malice in your heart. There is in your anger, though you may try and justify yourself as being justifiably indignant, justifiably wounded, and therefore justifiably angry, you don't see a real concern for the well-being of that other person in the way you react to them, in the way you express your anger. And all of these are clues, you understand, to show you that you've got a problem with anger.
We've got a culture around us encouraging us to indulge in this kind of anger, to stand upon our rights, to demand that we get what we deserve, to protest about it when we don't get it. And that kind of anger breaks apart marriages and families, and turns husbands against wives and wives against husbands, and parents against children and children against parents, and congregations against themselves, so that brothers and sisters in Christ are estranged because of anger. It's like a fire out of control, and the Apostle Paul says ‘Dear friends, do you not realize that this is a matter of the unity of the body and the glory of God? The unity of the body and the glory of God are at stake in you dealing with this issue!’
II. A command to contain and limit anger.
The second thing that the Apostle Paul says you see there in verse 26. Not only does he give us a weapon against anger by drawing it to our attention, because so often we're not even aware that we have a problem when we do; and not only is he giving us a weapon against it by reminding us how serious it is. So often we want to deal with our own sin, our deepest sin, by ignoring it.
Denial is our favorite way of dealing with things, especially in this culture. We want them to go away, in part because they’re so painful to us to deal with that we just want to ignore them out of existence! We’re embarrassed by them, we're shamed by them, and we don't want to deal with them. We want to shuffle them off to the side and pretend as if they are not there, and hope that the consequences go away. And it never works. And here's the Apostle Paul just saying to us ‘Do you realize what's at stake here? These things don't just go away. There are always consequences. There are always results. There are always things that flow from these things. God's glory is robbed. The body's unity is disrupted. Your souls are damaged.’
He not only gives us these as weapons to fight against anger. Notice what else he does: he gives us a command to contain and to limit our expression of anger: “Do not let the sun go down on your anger.” Paul is saying put a terminus on the expression of your anger. Put a limit on it. Put a terminus, put an end on your anger. Don't nurse anger. Don't allow it to go on. Don't put it in its little flower pot and water it and feed it, and encourage it to grow. Don't let the embers smolder.
J.B. Philips, who wrote an expanded paraphrase and translation of the New Testament, gave us the phrase — translating, or paraphrasing Paul in this passage — “Never go to bed angry.” That's a good rule. It's a rule I have not kept, to my shame. And it is seldom more applicable than to a married couple. You see, the Apostle Paul is saying anger is so serious — you need to recognize God's glory is at stake, you need to recognize the unity of the body is at stake — you've got to find ways to contain it, or it will spread like wildfire and it will destroy everything in its wake.
Paul is saying don't cherish anger, because if you do, you’re going to divide your family, you’re going to divide the body, you’re going to destroy your friendships, you’re going to rob God of glory, you’re going to break the unity of the church.
III. A command warning about anger and spiritual warfare.
And then, to raise the stakes even more, in verse 27 he says, “And do not give the devil an opportunity.” Now he's got to bring the devil into this thing! You see, the Apostle Paul is giving us here a command and a warning about anger and how it relates to spiritual warfare. He sees it as an opportunity that Satan often uses to destroy us.
Paul is saying, in verse 27, don't give the devil, don't give the accuser, an occasion to entrap you in sinful anger. Paul knows that anger is hard to handle responsibly, and so the evil one lurks, ready to exploit us, ready to provoke us, ready to prompt us, ready to sail with the wind. Our sinful anger is kindled, he is ready to fan the flames…he's ready to blow wind into those sails and help us go along in the expression of that sinful anger, because the devil wants to use our sinful, prideful, selfish anger to breach the fellowship of the body and rob God of glory. And he wants to use it to destroy your souls. And when he can do all three of those things at the same time, he loves it! When he gets to rob God of glory, destroy the fellowship of the body, and send your soul on the way to destruction, it's three for the price of one for him! He loves that! And the Apostle Paul says ‘Friends, understand that your battle with anger is a matter of spiritual warfare, because when you are expressing sinful anger, the evil one is at your shoulder ready to do his nefarious work.’
Frederick Buechner, the Christian writer, now in his eighties, says this about anger in his book, Wishful Thinking Transformed by Thorns:
“Of the seven deadly sins, anger is possibly the most fun. To lick your wounds, to smack your lips over grievances long past, to roll over your tongue the prospect of bitter confrontations still to come, to savor to the last toothsome morsel both the pain you are given and the pain you are giving back…in many ways, it is a feast fit for a king. The chief drawback is that what you are wolfing down is yourself. The skeleton at that feast is you.”
And Satan knows that…that we can consume ourselves, and we can destroy what is most precious to us – our husbands, our wives, our marriages, our parents, our children, our families, our friends in Christ, our churches – with our sinful anger, and rob God of glory, all at the same time. And the Apostle Paul says it is of the utmost importance that we do not give the devil an advantage or opportunity to act, with our sinful anger.
But you know, the sheer power of anger unleashed in our hearts — does it not in and of itself remind us of our need for God's saving grace and God's sanctifying grace? Because if there is anything that can prove to you that you do not have the power to reform yourself, to change yourself, to save yourself, it is anger. Because when you are wounded and bitter and indignant about what has been done against your person and the way that you have been robbed of what is rightfully yours, there is no earthly power that can un-root that bitterness from your heart. Only the saving grace, only the sanctifying grace of God can avail.
And so, if you’re here today and you don't know Jesus Christ, you’re not resting on Him for your salvation, you’re not clinging to Him, acknowledging Him as your Lord, you’re not worshiping Him as your God and Savior, here's my plan for you to conquer anger……….OK, did you get that? There is no plan to help you conquer your anger — except to avail yourself of the saving grace of God.
And if you’re here today and you’re a believer, and you’re wrestling with anger, there's nothing like anger to show you that you can't fix yourself. You can't self-generate your own growth. You have got to have the comforter, the paraclete, the Holy Spirit of God, the Holy Spirit of the Lord Jesus Christ, at work in you in order to grow, because this anger is something beyond our power to change.
John Calvin wrote 500 years ago,
“We feel every day how incurable is the disease of long continued anger, or at least how difficult it is to cure it.”
And so the battle that we wage against anger just drives us back to our need for the grace of God. But when we go back to the grace of God and we seek that grace from God, let us not forget how crucial it is for us to fight this battle. God's glory is at stake. And what a display, when the world can look and see people who have been angry transformed into people who are able to trust in the providence of the living God, despite their disappointments and trials! The world knows that the world can't supply that; that only God's Spirit, only God can do that. What a glorious thing it is to see people who have been consumed with anger reconciled through repentance and forgiveness, so that those who were estranged are now friends, dearest of friends. That's the power of God's grace at work. It's a witness to God's glory in the world, but that's what's at stake in our warfare against anger.
The unity of our fellowship is at stake. If we will not deal with our anger individually, it will and does affect the unity of our fellowship, and that affects our witness to the world and robs God of glory, if we do not attend to it.
My dear friends, let us pray that God will give us the grace to see our anger; to hate our anger; to repent of our anger; by His Spirit to grow out of the bitterness and the pride and the self-centeredness that feeds our anger; to forgive one another; to forbear with one another; and to express the life transformed by the grace of Christ that will witness to the world that God is at work in us.
Our Lord and our God, we need You every hour. We especially need You when we're dealing with anger. Lord God, You know how I need Your help with sinful anger. You know how my sinful anger grieves You and hurts those I love, and wounds the unity of the body, and robs You of glory. And I suspect, O God, that there may be a few other people praying that prayer with me right now. We need Your grace, O God, to address this monster. And as we are the problem, we cannot be the solution. Only Your grace can prevail. O God, make us determined to battle with Your grace against this foe. For Your glory, for our unity, for our souls’ and lives’ everlasting good, we pray it in Jesus' name. Amen.