This past Thursday I spoke at Cru. The topic I was given was the wrath of God. I was actually really excited when they gave me that topic. Why?
Let me explain by telling you a little about Lynn and me. We met 16yrs ago. We dated for two years and then were engaged for a year. During that time, we saw things in each that confirmed we wanted to spend the rest of our lives together. I saw her strength and her compassion. I saw a love for God that was humbling. I hope she saw similar things in me. At the same time, if we're being honest, we saw things in each other that gave us slight pause. For example, the way Lynn chews gum is enough to drive me crazy (what did it ever do to her that made her so mad). More seriously, I know my anger and bad temper gave her pause, rightly so. I remember she came to watch me play basketball once (intramural mind you). I got mad at the ref, cussed him out, got tossed out of the game. As if that weren't bad enough, when I left the gym I punched a cinder block wall and broke my hand. And Lynn saw it all. My anger/temper was a significant character flaw, but thankfully Lynn chose to love me despite it.
Here's the thing: we put the anger/wrath of God into the same category as my anger, as something we'll choose to love God despite. Instead, I believe it is something that should cause us to love and worship him more. We've put it in the wrong category, as something we'll reluctantly accept (or maybe something that keeps us from loving God). Yet, I believe we should come to see it as yet another expression of his perfections - always good, always worthy of praise.
Certainly, if you read the Bible you can't read far without running into expressions of God's anger. Theologian Arthur Pink wrote that there are more references in the Bible to God's anger, fury, and wrath than to his love and tenderness. The biblical writers attitudes towards God's anger is markedly different than our own - they were never embarrassed or shy when talking about it.
In the Old Testament we see God's wrath manifest in historical judgments. Think Noah (Gen. 6), the Red Sea (Ex. 14), etc. Don't forget the ground opening up to swallow Korah after his insurrection (Num. 16:32). And the sad story of Uzzah (2 Sam. 6:6-7). When we move on the the New Testament, the expressions of God's wrath are more subtle (though lets not forget Ananias and Saphira, Acts 5:1-5). There is a popular notion, wholly wrong, that God mellowed out by the time you get to the Old Testament. Again, this is wholly wrong. God's wrath is currently being revealed against mankind in their sin. God hands people over to their sin as punishment for their hardheartedness (Rom. 1:18-25). In addition, in the New Testament we see the eternal nature of God's anger much more clearly than in the Old. And, contrary to popular sentimental images of Jesus, most of the talk of hell in the Bible comes from his lips. So if we accept the Bible as God's self revelation, we must come to grips with God's anger.
Actually, we need to do more than come to grips with it, we must learn to love it. His anger, unlike ours, is always appropriate, always in proportion to the offense, and always good. In other words, it's very unlike ours. I get bent out of shape when I get cut off in traffic, when the movie has a crappy ending, when the Indians trade away all their good players, when the Yankees win. Silly stuff. But, not always. A while ago I saw a documentary on children in Africa kidnapped and forced to serve as soldiers, to kill or be killed. I got angry. It was appropriate. If we were walking down the street and saw a group of teenage boys terrorizing an elderly woman, what would you think of me if I didn't get angry? You would think there was something wrong with my moral compass, my sense of good. Anger is sometimes proper, sometimes warranted, sometimes necessary.
God's anger is always, not just sometimes, always proper and warranted. It is an expression of his holiness. When we speak of his holiness we are usually referring to his moral purity - that nothing evil, sinful or impure can be charged to his character. We have a derived holiness - it comes from God and burns like a candle. God's is un-derived and burns like a thousand suns. We get angry at injustice and other evils in proportion to our holiness. God in proportion to his. So the psalmist writes, "For you are not a God who delights in wickedness; evil may not dwell with you" (Ps. 5:4). The prophet Habakkuk says, "Your eyes are too pure to look on evil, and you cannot tolerate wrong" (Habakkuk 1:13).
God's anger is also an expression of his justice - it is always judicial. While I want to affirm an emotive response on God's part to evil (over against some radical ideas of God's impassibility), God's wrath is still always judicial. In other words, God as the Great Judge finds sinners guilty of violating his holy law and character, passes and executes judgment. He never gives more punishment than is deserved.
In addition, God's anger is also an expression of his love. When we love something, we hate what threatens or destroys the object of our affection. God loves us, and hates what sin and what it does to us - breaking fellowship, robbing us of joy, tarnishing his reputation and glory.
So God's anger is an expression of his holiness, justice and love. I think the word 'expression' is important because I do not believe that his anger is an essential characteristic of God. In other words, God hasn't always been angry or wrathful. God has always been loving, even before creation his love found expression in the Trinity. He has always been holy. But God was not angry till sin entered the world. The same thing could be said of his patience. Was God patient before he created? Well, what need was there to be? What God angry before sin? Angry at what?
Yet in this world, at this time when sin is very much a part of our reality, God is an angry and wrathful, and rightly so. Some question the goodness of a God who is wrathful. Again, I think this is backwards. If God wasn't angry upon seeing rape, torture, oppression, injustice, greed, etc., then his character would be open to questioning. If he didn't punish the wicked for their actions, if there was not final accountability, then we would wonder how he could be a just God.
I think most of us are ok with God's anger when it's reserved for those horrible people like Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, George Steinbrenner (just kidding). We think they deserve all God gives them, and then some more. The rub comes when we read that God's wrath hangs over all mankind, including us (apart from Christ), our nice neighbors, our wonderful grandparents, etc. Yet again, we must let the Word have the final word, and it is remarkably consistent. In the middle of Solomon's prayer of dedication for the temple, he says, “If they sin against you for there is no one who does not sin—and you are angry with them and give them to an enemy, so that they are carried away captive to the land of the enemy, far off or near... if they repent with all their mind and with all their heart in the land of their enemies...then hear in heaven your dwelling place their prayer and their plea, and maintain their cause and forgive your people who have sinned against you" (1 Kings 8:46-50). The 'if' of this statement is really a 'when' because Solomon acknowledges that "there is no one who does not sin". If your heart and mind are coming to your defense and saying you don't really sin, at least not awful sins, remember the prophet Jeremiah's words, "The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?" (Jeremiah 17:9). And don't forget Paul's testimony that "all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God" (Rom. 3:23) and "the wages of sin is death" (Rom. 6:23). The truth is we deserve the awful justice of the angry God.
There has only been one person in the whole scope of human history who hasn't deserved it, hasn't deserved hell. And the great irony is that this one person is the one who suffered it most intensely. Jesus, the spotless Lamb of God, suffered hell. The Apostles Creed refers to Jesus descending into hell. Rather than seeing that as an event subsequent to the crucifixion, I think it is best to see this as an expression of the horror of the cross (which is also it's glory). Jesus was a propitiation for our sins - a sacrifice that satisfies the wrath of God (1 John 2:2, 4:10; Romans 3:25; Hebrews 2:17). Jesus, becoming our sin for us (2 Cor. 5:21), bore the just punishment for our sin (Isaiah 53:4-6) and redeemed us from the curse by becoming the curse for us (Gal. 3:13). I love talking about the wrath of God because it brings me over and over again to the cross - the greatest expression of God's wrath in the Bible. Apart from God's anger towards sinful humanity and just wrath, the cross makes no sense. It wasn't just Jesus giving us an example to follow. It was Christ suffering God's wrath for us sinners, whom he loved.
How should we respond to the Bible's teaching on the wrath of God? First, we should accept his terms of peace. Paul implores us, "be reconciled to God" through Jesus (2 Cor. 5:20) , reminding us that "now is the favorable time; behold, now is the day of salvation" (2 Cor 6:2).
Second, as we have received grace and been reconciled, we are to extend grace and become ministers of reconciliation. Paul calls us "ambassadors for Christ" (2 Cor 5:20), arguing that God makes his appeal to sinful humanity through us.
Third, we ought to hate our sin. I'll speak for myself - I don't hate my sin nearly enough. I treat it as a pet, ignoring the sting and poison. I try to tame it, take it for a walk every once and a while. But when we consider the just wrath of God, as we consider the cross, we see how much God hates sin. He hates it so much that he sent his Son to die to put an end to it and deliver us from it's power. Christ hates sin so much that he was willing to die for us to redeem us from it's grasp. We shouldn't treat sin as a pet, but as a poisonous menace in our house that we'd kill before it kills us (Rom. 8:13; Col. 3:5). The psalmist writes, "O you who love the Lord, hate evil!" (Ps. 97:10). The book of Proverbs says, "The fear of the Lord is hatred of evil" (Prov. 8:10). The prophet Amos commands, "Hate evil, and love good, and establish justice in the gate" (Amos 5:15).
Lastly, we should worship. The Psalms are filled with praise for God's holiness expressed in anger and wrath towards sin and sinners. For example, "God is a righteous judge, and a God who feels indignation every day" (Ps. 7:11). And it isn't just vindictive Israelites who love God's wrath - it's the saints in heaven also: "After this I heard what seemed to be the loud voice of a great multitude in heaven, crying out, 'Hallelujah! Salvation and glory and power belong to our God, for his judgments are true and just; for he has judged the great prostitute who corrupted the earth with her immorality, and has avenged on her the blood of his servants.' Once more they cried out, 'Hallelujah! The smoke from her goes up forever and ever.'” (Rev. 19:1-4). We can praise God's anger and wrath because it is an expression of his perfection. Certainly, there should also be an element of grief when we see the wicked destroyed - that is true of God also (Ezek. 33:11). But this grief should not lead us to question God's anger or turn away from him because of it. As an expression of his holiness, justice and love it should elicit from us adoration, love and gratitude (that we have been spared from it)
Soli Deo Gloria.