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November 21, 2021 | Doug Sauder
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“The Lord passed before him and proclaimed, ‘The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and fourth generation.’”—Exodus 34:6–7 (ESV)
We like the idea of a God who loves unconditionally. However, many would say they’re uncomfortable with a God who gets angry. How can a God who calls Himself love also judge and condemn? This is a poignant question that can often turn people away from the God of the Bible. However, we commit a serious error when we sever God’s love from His other attributes, including His wrath because when we give more weight to one facet of God’s character over another our understanding of Him becomes skewed. We live out our faith in accordance with what we believe about God, so it’s important for us to develop a proper representation of God’s love and wrath in order to know Him more intimately and to live out our faith accordingly.
It’s necessary that we distinguish what God’s wrath is and what it’s not. God’s wrath is not God losing His temper, nor Him lashing out. According to New Testament professor and author D.A. Carson, God’s wrath is “[the] determined, willed, chosen, visceral reaction of a Holy God against all that dishonors Him, rebels against Him, or calls Him into question. [It] includes will, choice, and emotion, and is resolved in judgement, condemnation, and death.”
God’s wrath is, in a sense, a secondary attribute in that it’s something God does or a way in which He responds rather than a primary attribute which describes who He is. God responds in wrath out of His justice, holiness, and love and yet, we cannot say God is wrath the same way we say God is love. God’s love is His nature and His wrath is His response to rebellion and sin. D.A. Carson further elaborates that, “God’s wrath is His holy action of retributive justice towards His creation whose actions deserve eternal condemnation which includes humans and spiritual beings.” So, God is love, and He responds in wrath and judgement to anything that opposes Him.
God’s anger is depicted throughout Scripture with the Old Testament containing numerous passages on God’s wrath.
Here are just a few of the many passages in the Old Testament that portray God as angry and vengeful.
The New Testament also contains passages that refer to the wrath of God. It actually further elaborates on God’s wrath by introducing the concept of hell, eternal suffering, and final judgement. In the New Testament, the wrath of God is not portrayed by nations conquering God’s people and bringing destruction. Instead, God’s wrath culminates in a place where there is “weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matthew 24:51 NIV). We’re told “do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matthew 10:28 NIV). The story of the rich man and Lazarus describes the rich man’s torment and agony in hell—a place of eternal unrest (Luke 16:19-31).
Furthermore, we learn of God’s wrath explained in Paul’s theological discourse in Romans. The first three chapters of Romans expounds on how humanity entices the wrath of God by turning away from Him and worshipping themselves instead of their Creator. “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth” (Romans 1:18 ESV).
We may not love the idea of God becoming angry, but God’s anger has significant implications we mustn’t overlook. If God was never angry at sin, would He be perfect love? God cannot love us perfectly if He overlooks the very things that lead to our destruction. Pastor Tim Keller puts it this way, “If we love someone, we must hate whatever is ruining their lives, even if it is their own choices. Because God is perfect love, He cannot abide evil and sin.”
Moreover, God’s anger not only explains His love, it also explains His justice. Just as we respond in fury to a loved one’s destructive actions, we also respond in anger when they are wronged or mistreated. If we respond to injustice with anger, how much more does God? God’s holy anger works collectively with His justice because He beholds the impact of sin on the creation He loves. God intimately knows the pain and oppression of those who experience it and calls Himself their defender. If God didn’t become angry at sin and its destructive consequences in our world, He couldn’t call Himself the defender of those who’ve been oppressed by sin and He wouldn’t be a God of love because true love demands action. God is love, so, He acts and is not passive about sin and injustice, “when they cry out to the Lord because of their oppressors, He will send them a savior and defender, and He will rescue them” (Isaiah 19:20 ESV).
Just as we’ve distinguished what God’s wrath is, we must also do the same for God’s love. God’s love is not mere affection or affirmation, and it’s not indifferent to our condition as sinners. God is love, and His character of perfect love is best described in 1 Corinthians 13:4–8 (NIV), which states, “Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails.”
God’s love is unique and distinct. It’s a perfect love that casts out all fear (1 John 4:18). Whereas love in our modern culture is regularly devoid of any moral standard—equated with infatuation and blind affirmation—God’s holy love both clings to us at our worst yet overlooks our sins. God’s love is vastly different from human love in that it’s truly unconditional. God knows everything about us and still chooses to be in relationship with us. Therefore, the holiness of God’s love exposes us to how unlovable we truly are.
God’s perfect love both reveals our sin and covers it. God doesn’t love us because we’re lovable; He loves us because He is love. God’s love embraces us as we are yet points us to live according to His will. Therefore, God’s love and mercy are not contradictory to God’s judgement and wrath because both are necessary for us to understand the importance of the cross for their tension is met and fulfilled there.
No other place is God’s wrath and love more clearly displayed than on the cross. The “cup” that Jesus desperately prayed to be spared from was God’s judgement and wrath. On the cross, Jesus received the fullness of God’s wrath for our sins. He received separation, condemnation, and punishment for the sins of the world. As the prophet Isaiah writes, “The punishment that brought us peace was upon Him” (Isaiah 53:5 NIV).
On the cross, God poured out the fullness of His wrath for the sins of mankind and displayed the fullness of His love by taking on the punishment Himself. He didn’t give us the punishment we deserved, but was faithful to fulfill the promise He’d made throughout history—that He’d make a way for our sins to be forgiven.
Jesus’ substitutionary atonement was God’s way of sparing judgement on those who would receive by faith Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. For all those who’ve placed their faith in Christ, this punishment is removed. For those who refuse Christ, God’s wrath remains (John 3:36; Romans 2:6). At the final judgment, God will separate those for whom Christ bore their wrath from those who will bear the punishment themselves. God’s wrath against sin reveals why we need salvation; God’s love shows us the way.
Gabriella Silva serves as a volunteer for Calvary’s communications and worship teams. She holds an M.A. in psychology from Fuller Theological Seminary and is passionate about integrating her knowledge of human behavior with the truth of God’s word. When she is not writing resources or singing at church, Gabi loves to paint, cook, and enjoy time outdoors with her family and friends.