Wrath or Love? Speaking the Truth About God

In the wake of reactions to a recent TGCA review that stressed the need for us to talk about God’s wrath, we asked Peter Adam to offer us his perspective. Here are his answers to three important questions about how to think about God’s wrath and love. 

Q1. What is true? Is God loving or is God wrathful?

The answer is that both are true. We find God’s love and God’s wrath in the Old Testament, for example in Exodus 34.

“The LORD, the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children and their children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation.” (Exodus 34:6,7).

Notice that both God’s love and God’s judgment are proclaimed. The truth does not lie in one or the other, not does the truth lie between them, with each moderating the other. Both are proclaimed absolutely by God.

We find God’s love and God’s wrath in the teachings of Christ.

Here are the places where Jesus talks about hell:

  • Matt 5:22, 29,30
  • Matt 10:28 (= Luke 12:5)
  • Matt 11:23 (= Luke 10:15)
  • Matt 16:18
  • Matt 18:8,9 (= Mark 9:43-49)
  • Matt 23:15,23
  • Luke 16:23.

In Luke 12, Jesus tells the disciples to fear God because he can cast them into hell—yet also not to fear him, because he is their heavenly Father:

I tell you, my friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body and after that can do no more. But I will show you whom you should fear: Fear him who, after your body has been killed, has authority to throw you into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him. Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten by God. Indeed, the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows. (Luke 12:4-7)

We should fear God as judge and trust him as Father. God is both just and loving: God judges those who turn from him, and he cares for those who turn to him.

We should fear God as judge and trust him as Father. God is both just and loving: God judges those who turn from him, and he cares for those who turn to him.

We find God’s love together with his God’s wrath in the rest of the New Testament too.

In Hebrews, for example, the message is not that God is the judge in the Old Testament, and God is the saviour in the New Testament. Rather, it is that, with a better revelation, the New Testament brings greater blessings, and also greater dangers if we don’t respond:

We must pay the most careful attention, therefore, to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away. For since the message spoken through angels was binding, and every violation and disobedience received its just punishment, how shall we escape if we ignore so great a salvation? (Hebrews 2:1-3).

Or again:

Anyone who rejected the law of Moses died without mercy on the testimony of two or three witnesses. How much more severely do you think someone deserves to be punished who has trampled the Son of God underfoot, who has treated as an unholy thing the blood of the covenant that sanctified them, and who has insulted the Spirit of grace? For we know him who said, “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” and again, “The Lord will judge his people.” It is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God (Hebrews 10:26-31).

And also:

See to it that you do not refuse him who speaks. If they did not escape when they refused him who warned them on earth, how much less will we, if we turn away from him who warns us from heaven? … Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us be thankful, and so worship God acceptably with reverence and awe, for our “God is a consuming fire.” (Hebrews 12:25-29).

Q2. How does the Bible bring wrath and love together?

Our God is ‘holy, holy, holy’ (Isaiah 6:3) and—because he is holy—he wants his people to be ‘a holy nation’ (Ex 19:6, 1 Pet 2:9). ‘You shall be holy, for I, the LORD your God, am holy.’ ‘I am the LORD; I make you holy.’ (Lev 19:2, 20:8).

Yet God’s holiness also means danger for his people. Because God is holy he:

  • tells us of our sin
  • tells us not to sin;
  • warns us of his judgement on sin and on sinners;
  • judges us and disciplines us to cure us of our sins;
  • warns us of his wrath and final judgement, and;
  • calls us to repent and trust his faithful love and forgiveness.

Most importantly, because God is holy, he sends his holy Son to die in our place and take the punishment, judgement and wrath as our substitute; to sanctify (make holy) his people. He makes a holy covenant with us, and indwells us by his Holy Spirit.

Because God is holy, he sends his holy Son to die in our place and take the punishment, judgement and wrath as our substitute; to sanctify (make holy) his people

As Hebrews tells us:

we have been made holy through the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ once for all (10:10).

For by one sacrifice he has made perfect forever those who are being made holy (10:14).

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 (10:19-22).

Make every effort to live in peace with everyone and to be holy; without holiness no one will see the Lord (12:14).

Holy Sinners

If we belong to Christ we are holy—despite our own sinfulness. Thus, Paul addresses the church in Corinth—with all its sins and all its immaturity— as ‘the church of God in Corinth, to those sanctified (made holy) in Christ Jesus and called to be his holy people (1 Corinthians 1:2).

This is astonishing and essential! If we are in Christ we are holy in him—with his holiness. If we are not in Christ, we are not holy. If we are in Christ, we are with God. If we are not in Christ, we are without God.

Q3. Is the Father wrathful and the Son loving?

People sometimes give this impression when they’re offering a short description of the gospel. But Scripture shows us that the Father and Son are both wrathful toward sin, and both loving toward sinners. God the Father loves us, and sent his Son to save us.

First, both the Father and Son love us:

‘(God) did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all…’ (Romans 8:32).

‘This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins’ (1 John 4:10).

John Calvin clarifies this by quoting Augustine of Hippo:

The fact that we were reconciled through Christ’s death must not be understood as if his Son reconciled us to him that he might now begin to love those whom he had hated. Rather, we have already been reconciled to him who loves us, with whom we were enemies on account of sin.[1]

Second, both the Father and Son are wrathful toward sin:

As surely as the Father is loving, so too the Son will be our judge. So Paul says in Acts

In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead.” (Acts 17:30,31).

Jesus, in other words, is the one through whom God will judge the world (c.f. John 5:22-30). When we read Revelation 6 we get a shocking depiction of the day when that happens:

Then the kings of the earth, the princes, the generals, the rich, the mighty, and everyone else, both slave and free, hid in caves and among the rocks of the mountains. They called to the mountains and the rocks, “Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who sits on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb! For the great day of their(g) wrath has come, and who can withstand it?” (Revelation 6:15-17).

Father, Son, and Spirit are one God with an undivided nature. They share the same holy wrath and same gracious love.

 


[1] John Calvin, The Institutes, 2.16.4, quoting from Augustine, John’s Gospel, cx. 6.

Photo: Mandy Beerley on Unsplash

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