In last week’s post on the wrath and love of God, we asked Peter Adam three difficult questions about how we think and speak about God’s wrath and love. Here are four more questions, plus some helpful tips for preachers and teachers.
1. Does Jesus’ Death Pay for Sin or Affect God?
Discussion of this topic often focuses on a particular word, usually translated as ‘propitiation’ or ‘expiation’ in the New Testament, but also translated as ‘sacrifice of atonement’ or ‘atoning sacrifice’ in NIV20II. It is used in 1 John 2:2 and 4:10, and related words are use in Romans 3:25, Luke 18:13, and Hebrews 2:17.  The sacrifice of atonement achieves propitiation, or expiation, or both. You propitiate a person by setting aside their anger, and you expiate a sin, by setting it aside. The idea of propitiation links directly to the topic of these posts: the wrath and love of God. Christ propitiated God’s wrath, and so expiated our sin. He reconciled us to God, and dealt with our sin.
You propitiate a person by setting aside their anger, and you expiate a sin, by setting it aside. Christ propitiated God’s wrath, and so expiated our sin. He reconciled us to God, and dealt with our sin.
However, even when these related words are not used, the same idea is present whenever Christ’s death on the cross is described as a ‘sacrifice for sin.’ This links to the burnt offering, sin offering and guilt offering in the Old Testament, each of which results in atonement (at-one-ment) with God, and forgiveness of sin (Leviticus 1, 4,5).
By the shedding of Jesus’ blood in his sacrifice offered on the cross, we gain free access to God who dwells in the Most Holy Place. Just as the Levitical priest couldn’t survive in God’s presence without the blood of the atonement (Lev 16:1-2), so we dare not enter the presence of God without Jesus our great priest, and his blood shed on the cross. Through him and his sacrifice, we can enter the presence of our holy God.
Therefore, brothers and sisters, since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is, his body, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near to God with a sincere heart and with the full assurance that faith brings, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water (Hebrews 10:19-22).
2. Surely we don’t mean that God is really – literally – angry or wrathful?
In the Bible God speaks to us in human language, and in words that we can understand. And because we are made in the image of God, there is a close correspondence between language about God and language about ourselves. But these are also always some differences.
There is a bigger gap in the area of physicality, because we have physical bodies and God does not. So we read in the Bible:
Sing to the LORD a new song, for he has done marvellous things; his right hand and his holy arm have worked salvation for him (Psalm 98:1).
When we read this we know that this is metaphorical language. God does not literally have a right hand or an arm. But God works powerfully in this world to achieve his purposes. However in the regards to emotions, there is closer correspondence between God and ourselves.
Here is a vivid picture of God’s frustrated love for his people.
When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son.
But the more they were called, the more they went away from me .
They sacrificed to the Baals and they burned incense to images.
It was I who taught Ephraim to walk, taking them by the arms; but they did not realize it was I who healed them.
I led them with cords of human kindness, with ties of love.
To them I was like one who lifts a little child to the cheek, and I bent down to feed them …
How can I give you up, Ephraim? How can I hand you over, Israel? How can I treat you like Admah? How can I make you like Zeboyim?
My heart is changed within me; all my compassion is aroused.
I will not carry out my fierce anger, nor will I devastate Ephraim again.
For I am God, and not a man— the Holy One among you.
I will not come against their cities (Hosea 11:1-9).
Jesus – God Translated
But the most accurate depiction of God’s emotions comes to us through Jesus. God does not have a body or human mind—but Jesus, God’s incarnate Son does. His emotions perfectly translate God’s emotions for us.
Jesus shows us that God …
… loves us:
It was just before the Passover Festival. Jesus knew that the hour had come for him to leave this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end (John 13:1).
… grieves over unrepentance:
As he approached Jerusalem and saw the city, he wept over it and said, “If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace—but now it is hidden from your eyes. The days will come upon you when your enemies will build an embankment against you and encircle you and hem you in on every side. They will dash you to the ground, you and the children within your walls. They will not leave one stone on another, because you did not recognize the time of God’s coming to you.” (Luke 19:41-44).
… is angered by stubborn sin:
He looked around at them in anger and, deeply distressed at their stubborn hearts, said to the man, “Stretch out your hand” Mark 3:9).
Jesus proves that human love, sorrow, anger are suitable analogies for God. Jesus’ human emotions are not a lie.
But we also need to be careful not to confuse our emotions with God’s. Our love, sorrow and anger are often tainted by sin and selfishness; by moral failure and by misunderstandings of ourselves or of others. We’re also hindered because we don’t always know what God feels about a particular situation. I may be wrathful with a person when God is being patient. I may be wanting to save a person from the consequences of their actions, when God wants them to face and suffer those consequences.
We don’t always know what God feels about a particular situation. I may be wrathful with a person when God is being patient. I may be wanting to save a person from the consequences of their actions, when God wants them to face and suffer those consequences.
Finally, we should remember that if we say that God does not really feel angry then we will also need to say that God does not really feel love! We can’t pick and choose God’s emotions.
3. Does God ‘love the sinner but hate the sin’?
People often make this claim, because it sounds like an attractive way of resolving our difficulty. However it isn’t a biblical way of putting it, and misunderstands the connection between ourselves and our actions. Notice the following.
God does hate evil practices, because they damage people as well as dishonouring him.
…be careful not to be ensnared by inquiring about their gods, saying, “How do these nations serve their gods? We will do the same.” You must not worship the LORD your God in their way, because in worshiping their gods, they do all kinds of detestable things the LORD hates. They even burn their sons and daughters in the fire as sacrifices to their gods (Deuteronomy 12:30,31).
But God also hates people who do evil, for the same two reasons.
For you are not a God who is pleased with wickedness; with you, evil people are not welcome. The arrogant cannot stand in your presence.
You hate all who do wrong; you destroy those who tell lies.
The bloodthirsty and deceitful you, LORD, detest (Psalm 5:4-6).
As God’s inner character is revealed and expressed in his words and his works, so our inner character is expressed in our words and our works. What we are shapes what we do, and what we do shapes what we are. We cannot separate ourselves from what we think, say and do, and that includes our sins.
God says of his people through Jeremiah,
I will forsake my house, abandon my inheritance;
I will give the one I love into the hands of her enemies.
My inheritance has become to me like a lion in the forest.
She roars at me; therefore I hate her (Jeremiah 12:7-8).
So God does hate sinners. However that is not the whole story!
For God also says to his people through Jeremiah,
I have loved you with an everlasting love; I have drawn you with unfailing kindness (Jeremiah 31:3).
And we read in Romans,
But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God’s wrath through him! For if, while we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life! (Romans 5:8-10).
We think of love and hate as opposites, but Calvin quotes these words of Augustine:
To the truth of both propositions (that God loves us and hates us) we have the attestation of the Apostle, ‘God commendeth his love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us,’
Therefore he had this love towards us even when, exercising enmity towards him, we were the workers of iniquity. Accordingly in a manner wondrous and divine, he loved even when he hated us. For he hated us when we were such as he had not made us, and yet because our iniquity had not destroyed his work in every respect, he knew in regard to each one of us, both to hate what we had made, and love what he had made.
And God continues to love those who will eventually reject him. He gives them life, sustains them, provides for them, gives them joys, warns them, teaches them the danger of their sin by making them receive the consequences of their sinful actions, show them the futility and rebellion against him, and invites them to receive his Son, reconciliation, forgiveness and eternal life. God does not condemn innocent people: God forgives guilty people.
In John Stott’ words,
For we deserve nothing at God’s hand but judgement. If we receive what we deserve (which is judgement), or if we receive what we do not deserve (which is mercy), in neither case is God unjust.
And how is this mercy received? Paul gives us the answer in Romans,
… for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of his blood—to be received by faith. He did this to demonstrate his righteousness, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished— he did it to demonstrate his righteousness at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus (Romans 3:23-26).
4. Should we preach the wrath of God or the love of God?
I think that we should preach the holiness and justice of God and the love and mercy of God. As I suggested above, God’s holiness is expressed in both his love and his wrath.
Yet we shouldn’t confuse God’s wrath with his love. The Bible says that ‘God is love’ (1 John 4:16), but never that ‘God is wrath’. While God experiences and expresses wrath, he is not wrath.
We should remember that, in Scripture, preaching about judgement and wrath is always meant to warn people to repent and turn from their sins. We too should preach God’s wrath in order to preach God’s love and mercy.
We should also remember that the great day of God’s judgement and wrath is not now, but in the future, at the return of Christ: ‘Now is the time of God’s favour, now is the time of salvation’ (1 Corinthians 6:2).
We should remember that,
The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance (2 Peter 3:9).
So we should not speak as if we are declaring God’s final judgement and condemnation now. It is not yet the time for that final judgement and condemnation, and we do not have the right to make that declaration!
Israel Falau was recently asked what was God’s plan for gays. His reply was ‘Hell, unless they repent of their sins and turn to God.’ I think a better reply would have been, ‘That they repent and turn from their sins and trust in Christ, lest they go to hell’. For God’s great plan is a plan of salvation through Christ for all who believe in him.
We read in 1 Peter that when Christ was facing death, ‘he entrusted himself to him who judges justly’ (1 Peter 2:23). We too should trust God who judges justly as we think through these issues.
Tips for Preachers
Watch Your Language!
We should watch our language when we are talking about God, and about Christ, and about the death and resurrection of Christ. We cannot explain exactly what happened, but we must be careful not to give wrong impressions or promote wrong understandings.
So for example, I have heard the death of Christ explained this way:
You are in the dock, about to be fined by the judge. Then a visitor walks into the court,and says ‘I will pay that fine’. The judge agrees, so you go free.
What is unhelpful about this illustration? It is that there is no connection between the judge and the visitor, so it implies that there is no connection between God the Father and God the Son, and that God the Father did not plan or intend your release. Furthermore, there is no connection between you and the unknown visitor, whereas Christ knew you, loved you, and gave his life for you.
So when we speak of Christ’s death, we need to think carefully about the words we use. And this includes being aware of what people hear as well as what we intend to communicate.
When we speak of Christ’s death, we need to think carefully about the words we use. And this includes being aware of what people hear as well as what we intend to communicate.
Today ‘wrath’ and ‘anger’ are very unpopular words, mainly because human beings do wrath and anger so badly and unlovingly. It is usually self-indulgent, and often destructive.
We need to help people to see and hear that God’s wrath and anger are holy, not out of control, responsible and appropriate.
We might use the word ‘judgement.’ The problem is that in our world legal judgements are impersonal, whereas God’s judgements are deeply personal, as God’s Law is deeply personal. To break God’s law is to offend God personally, to damage a relationship with the Law-maker, the Law-giver.
It is tempting to use expressions like: ‘God’s pure love’, and ‘God’s pure wrath’. If I did use them, I would of course mean that God’s love and God’s wrath are not compromised by moral imperfection. But the trouble is that people might think that I mean that God’s love does not also express his judgement, or that God is completely wrathful with no mercy at all. So if I do use those expressions, I explain them, such as saying, ‘God’s pure and holy love’, God’s pure and holy wrath’. Certainly at the present time God’s present wrath and his warnings of future wrath are designed to bring people to repentance. And certainly at the present time God loves his enemies and ‘causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous’ (Matthew 5:45).
I try to help people by using expressions like:
- God’s holy and just wrath.
- God’s perfect and just judgement.
- God’s responsible anger.
I do not say that God was angry with Jesus. I have said that God’s wrath was poured out on Christ, but I prefer not to use that expression. Even though it reflects Bible truth, it is not what the Bible says. I usually say that ‘God poured out his wrath, and his Son bore that wrath in our place’. Or, ‘God acted in judgement, and Jesus took that judgement on our behalf, as our substitute’. Or ‘Jesus suffered the curse of God instead of us’.
God the Father loved his Son as his Son bore God’s judgement and God’s wrath on our sin. God poured out his wrath on us, and Christ bore it in our place, as our substitute. Praise him!
We can believe the gospel, without fully understanding it
Paul says that God’s ways are ultimately beyond us. But we can still praise God!
Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable his judgments, and his paths beyond tracing out! Who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has been his counsellor?” Who has ever given to God,
that God should repay them? For from him and through him and for him are all things. To him be the glory forever! Amen (Romans 11:33-36)
- Unbelievers need to hear of the love and wrath of God, and believers need to hear the same.
- Don’t preach one without the other.
- Don’t preach one as if the other is not also true.
- Don’t preach that God the Father hates us and God the Son loves us. Preach God’s love as the source of our salvation.
- Recognise the needs of the people to whom you preach. The false prophets in Jeremiah’s day preached peace when they should have preached judgement. But Job’s comforters condemned Job when he was not guilty!
- We only know the greatness of God’s love when we know the greatness of his wrath.
- Know when to preach wrath, and when to preach love.
- Know yourself, and recognise your natural tendency to preach love and ignore wrath, or preach wrath and ignore love.
- Don’t let your ministry be shaped by reaction against error. If other people only preach wrath, do not only preach love. If other people only preach love, do not only preach wrath. Reaction against error is no way to find the truth, and reaction against error in other people’s ministry is no way to do good ministry.
- Remember that most preaching of judgement in the Bible is a gracious act of God intended to bring people to repentance.
- Preach wrath with tears, and in order to urge people to repent, not to give the impression that the wrath of God is their only possible future.
- Remember that God is the judge, and you are not.
- Remember that now is the day of salvation, and that God is patient because he wants to give people opportunity to repent.
- Preach what the Bible passage you are using says, and don’t muffle it.
Finally, for everyone:
There is no refuge from God: but there is sure refuge in God.
Run from God’s wrath, and run to God’s mercy.
Some useful resources:
- Other posts by Peter Adam on the atonement, response to David Bentley Hart, and review of NT Wright The Day the Revolution Began
- Leon Morris, The Apostolic Preaching of the Cross.
- John Stott, The Cross of Christ
- Steve Jeffery, Michael Ovey, and Andrew Sach, Pierced for Our Transgressions: Rediscovering the Glory of Penal Substitution.
 The background to this word is the ‘Day of Propitiation’ of Leviticus 16.
 John Calvin, The Institutes, 2.16.4
 John Stott, The Message of Romans, 269,70/
 However I am full of admiration for Israel Falau’s willingness to tell others what he believes about God and Christ and the way of salvation!