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The Volcano of God’s Wrath

by Stephen Davey Scripture Reference: Romans 2:5–8

The wrath of God is an inevitable reality for all who continue to reject the Lord. It cannot be ignored, but it can be avoided by the grace of God.


Shortly after Paul’s death, the volcano named Vesuvius exploded like an atomic bomb, burying the Italian city of Pompeii. Its population was killed by the poisonous gasses and the ash and then preserved by the molten lava. Modern excavations of Pompeii have given us a perfectly preserved Roman city, frozen in time. One author wrote that Pompeii was caught in the act of being itself.[1]

Pompeii was about 150 miles southeast of Rome, and I cannot help but wonder if people there had read a copy of Paul’s letter to the Romans. It is a letter that declares the gospel but also warns of the judgment of God. Frankly, there is no evidence that Pompeii was impacted at all by Paul’s letter.

More than 20,000 people lived in Pompeii, and they worshiped two gods—Venus, the goddess of love, and Mercury, the god of commerce. To put it bluntly, they worshiped gods of sexual pleasure and money. When this city was excavated, advertisements for prostitutes and pornographic drawings littered the city walls. Statutes were discovered that were so obscene that museums wouldn’t feature them for centuries.

Someone had written on one wall three words: Sodom and Gomorrah. And just like Sodom and Gomorrah, the city of Pompeii perished, buried under the lava of Mount Vesuvius.

Now we have already learned in our study of Romans 2:4 that God is holding back the full eruption of His wrath. And in the meantime, His kindness is drawing people to repentance.

Keep in mind that Paul is writing here in chapter 2 to moral, self-righteous people. They do not think they need to be saved—they are not that bad; they do not need to fear God’s judgment.

Paul tells them the truth in verse 5:

Because of your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed.

Paul reveals the true condition of these self-righteous people. He describes them as having a “hard” heart. The Greek word is sklērotēs, which gives us our medical term sclerosis. You may have heard of arteriosclerosis, which is “hardening of the arteries.” It is life threatening!

Paul says the moral person has a life-threatening condition that is far worse. It is the hardening of the heart; and unless it is cured, it will be fatal.

The apostle also writes that the moral unbeliever has an “impenitent heart.” That is, he is unrepentant. He will not change his mind about God; he will not change his mind about sin. There is no change of heart, no change of will. Simply put, there is no repentance!

On the outside, the moral person looks good. He does not seem to be caught up in the sins of chapter 1. He is a member of the church; he is teaching underprivileged children after school; he is serving meals to the homeless.

On the outside, everything looks wonderful, but Paul shows him that under the X-ray of God’s holiness, he has hardening of the heart. In fact, he needs a heart transplant, and only the divine Physician can perform that spiritual surgery. And for those who will not admit their need of salvation—of divine heart surgery—Paul writes in verse 5: “You are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath when God's righteous judgment will be revealed.” “Storing up” means to stockpile little by little.

Paul says, “Mr. (Mrs./Miss) Moral, Respectable Person, you think you are getting away with looking good. You think you are storing up good deeds that will one day outweigh your bad deeds. But what you are actually doing is storing up wrath; you are piling up, higher and higher, the wrath of God, which one day will be unleashed upon you because of your stubborn and unrepentant heart.”

The more you continue in sin, the more skilled you get at defending your sin rather than repenting of it. And the older you get, the more stubborn you get.

Paul says here there is a coming eternal reckoning when, God “will render to each one according to his works” (verse 6). Now, we need to understand that Paul is not defining the basis for salvation here. He is defining the basis for judgment. The basis for salvation is faith in Christ alone. The basis for judgment is sinful deeds.

The believer will stand at the judgment seat of Christ, where his works will be judged, not to see if he can get into heaven, but to be rewarded for how he lived on earth (2 Corinthians 5:10). The unbeliever will be brought before a different judgment—before the great white throne of God. The unbeliever is not brought to that final judgment to see if he is going to hell but to understand why he is (Revelation 20:11-15).

Now let me just pull over here and make a point: faith alone in Christ brings salvation, yet at the same time, genuine faith reveals itself through good works. Paul wrote, in Ephesians 2:10:

For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.

True faith will produce a desire to please your heavenly Father. You are His child, and you want Him to be proud of you. And beloved, if people claim to be Christians but have absolutely no desire to please the Lord, they are fooling themselves.

Now here is the outcome of God’s judgment: “To those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life” (verse 7).

In contrast, we read in verse 8, “But for those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, there will be wrath and fury.” For the unbeliever, this is a terrifying warning. Vesuvius is rumbling. Every day you live, every hour you refuse to repent, only makes the coming explosion of judgment that much more severe.

I read recently about an old man who lived in Florida who was known by everybody as “Old Ed.” Every Friday evening as the sun began to set, Old Ed would walk out on a pier carrying a bucket of shrimp. Soon the sky would become crowded with screeching, squawking seagulls. He would throw the shrimp into the air, and people nearby would notice that under his breath he was saying something to the birds.

His name was Eddie Rickenbacker. He flew a B-17 in World War II. On one mission, he and his crew crashed into the Pacific Ocean. Miraculously, they all made it out of the plane and into their life raft. Aboard that raft, for days on end, they fought the sun and the sharks. Their rations finally ran out. Things grew desperate.

One day, nearing death from starvation, Ed was lying semi-conscious with his hat pulled down over his eyes, when something landed on his head. It was a seagull. That gull meant food—if he could catch it. He slowly reached up and caught it. The men made a meal of that bird; then using the leftovers for fish bait, they were able to catch fish and survive until they were rescued. Ed never forgot that seagull.

So, every Friday evening for years, until he died, Old Ed would go out to that pier with a bucket full of shrimp; and throwing them up into the air for the seagulls, he would repeat over and over again, “Thank you . . . thank you . . . thank you.”[2]

If we have been rescued by Jesus Christ—saved from the future eruption of holy, eternal wrath—can we do anything less today than use our lives and our voices and our actions to honor our Redeemer in a way that says to Him, “Thank you . . . thank you . . . thank you”?

[1] Robert J. Morgan, Nelson’s Complete Book of Stories, Illustrations, and Quotes (Thomas Nelson, 2000), 504.

[2] Adapted from Max Lucado, In the Eye of the Storm (Thomas Nelson, 1991), 163-64.

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