God’s Wrath, Love, and a common Christian Cliché

It is often easy to have the misconception that understanding the doctrine of the love of God is simple. It is easy! God just loves everybody all the time! However, reality is just the opposite. God’s love is a difficult doctrine. It is made difficult for the simple reason that God is a God of justice, and we are sinners. D.A. Carson in his book The Difficult Doctrine of the Love of God, opens this up in many, many ways. Too many to number, in fact, and I will only include one extended section here. I suggest this book to anyone wanting to understand God’s love in a deeper, and more balanced way. It will challenge you greatly. Here D.A. Carson takes on many misunderstandings and attempts to show the interplay between the Wrath and Love of God.

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(Picture I took for a photography class project)

  1. The Love of God and the Wrath of God

Here I shall venture three reflections.

1) The Bible speaks of the wrath of God in high-intensity language. “The LORD Almighty is mustering an army for war….Wail, for the day of the LORD is near; it will come like destruction from the Almighty….See, the day of the Lord is coming—a cruel day, with wrath and fierce anger—to make the land desolate and destroy the sinners within it” (Isa. 13:4,6,9). “Therefore as surely as I live, declares the Sovereign LORD, because you have defiled my sanctuary with all your vile images and detestable practices, I myself will withdraw my favor; I will not look on you with pity or spare you. A third of your people will die of the plague or perish by famine inside you; a third will fall by the sword outside your walls; and a third I will scatter to the winds and pursue with drawn sword….And when I have spent my wrath upon them, they will know that I the LORD have spoken in my zeal. I will make you a ruin and a reproach among the nations around you, in the sight of all who pass by….When I shoot at you with my deadly and destructive arrows of famine, I will shoot to destroy you….Plague and bloodshed will sweep through you, and I will bring the sword against you. I the LORD have spoken” (Ezek. 5:11-17). Such passages could be multiplied a hundredfold. Make all the allowance you like fro the nature of language in the apocalyptic genre, but Revelation 14 includes some of the most violent expressions of God’s wrath found in all literature.

Wrath, like love, includes emotion as a necessary component. Here again, if impassibility is defined in terms of the complete absence of all “passions,” not only will you fly in the face of the biblical evidence, but you tumble into fresh errors that touch the very holiness of God. The reason is that in itself, wrath, unlike love, is not one of the intrinsic perfections of God. Rather, it is a function of God’s holiness against sin. Where there is no sin, there is no wrath—but there will always be love in God. Where God in his holiness confronts his image-bearers in their rebellion, there must be wrath, or God is not the jealous God he claims to be, and his holiness is impugned. The price of diluting God’s wrath is diminishing God’s holiness.

This point is so important I must tease it out a little further. It is hard to read the pages of Scripture without perceiving that the wrath of God, however much it is a function of God’s holiness against sin, nevertheless has a powerful affective element in it. Thus to distance God too greatly from wrath on the ground of a misconceived form of impassibility soon casts shadows back onto his holiness.

Alternatively, this so-called wrath, depersonalized and de-emotionalized, is redefined as an anthropopathism that is actually talking about the impartial and inevitable impersonal effects of sin in a person or culture. That was the route of C.H. Dodd in the 1930s. The entailment, then as now, is that the significance of the cross changes. If God is not really angry, it is difficult to see why any place should be preserved for propitiation. But to this I shall return.

Further, to retreat to the distinction between the immanent Trinity and the economic Trinity in this case would be disastrous. That tactic argues that God as he is in himself (the immanent Trinity) is immune from wrath while God as he inereacts with rebels (the economic Trinity) displays his wrath. But because God’s wrath is a function of his holiness, this leaves us in the dubious position of ascribing to God as he is in himself less concern for maintaining his holiness than God as he interacts with the created and fallen order. Conceptually this is a substantial distance from the pictures of God in Scripture; analytically it is slightly bizarre.

2) How, then, should the love of God and the wrath of God be understood to relate to each other? One evangelical cliché has it that God hates the sin but loves the sinner. There is a small element of truth in these words: God has nothing but hate for the sin, but it would be wrong to conclude that God has nothing but hate for the sinner. A difference must be maintained between God’s view of sin and his view of the sinner. Nevertheless the cliché (God hates the sin but loves the sinner) is false on the face of it and should be abandoned. Fourteen times in the first fifty psalms alone, we are told that God hates the sinner, his wrath is on the liar, and so forth. In the Bible, the wrath of God rests both on the sin (Rom. 1:18ff.) and on the sinner (John 3:36).

Our problem, in part, is that in human experience wrath and love normally abide in mutually exclusive compartments. Love drives wrath out, or wrath drives love out. We come closest to bringing them together, perhaps, in our responses to a wayward act by one of our children, but normally we do not think that a wrathful person is loving.

But this is not the way it is with God. God’s wrath is not an implacable, blind rage. However emotional it may be, it is an entirely reasonable and willed response to offenses against his holiness. But his love, as we saw in the last chapter, wells up amidst his perfections and is not generated by the loveliness of the loved. Thus there is nothing intrinsically impossible about wrath and love being directed toward the same individual or people at the same time. God in his perfections must be wrathful against his rebel image-bearers, for they have offended him; God in his perfections must be loving toward his rebel image-bearers, for he is that kind of God.

3) Two other misconceptions circulate widely even in circles of confessional Christianity.

The first is that in the Old Testament God’s wrath is more strikingly transparent than his love, while in the New Testament, though doubtless a residue of wrath remains, a gentleness takes over and softens the darker period: God’s love is now richer than his wrath. After all, Jesus taught his disciples to love their enemies and turn the other cheek.

Nothing could be further from the truth than this reading of the relationship between the Testaments. One suspects that the reason why this formula has any credibility at all is that the manifestation of God’s wrath in the Old Testament is primarily in temporal categories—famine, plague, siege, war, slaughter. In our present focus on the here and now, these images have a greater impact on us than what the New Testament says, with its focus on wrath in the afterlife. Jesus, after all, is the one who in the New Testament speaks most frequently and most colorfully about hell—this Jesus of the other cheek. The apostolic writings, climaxing in Revelation 14, offer little support for the view that a kinder, gentler God surfaces in the New Testament at this stage in redemptive history.

The reality is that the Old Testament displays the grace and love of God in experience and types, and these realities become all the clearer in the new covenant writings. Similarly, the Old Testament displays the righteous wrath of God in experience and types, and these realities become all the clearer in the new covenant writings. In other words, both God’s love and God’s wrath are ratcheted up in the move from the old covenant to the new, from the Old Testament to the New. These themes barrel along through redemptive history, unresolved, until they come to a resounding climax—in the cross.

Do you wish to see God’s love? Look at the cross. Do you wish to see God’s wrath? Look at the cross.

Hymn writers have sometimes captured this best. In Wales Christians sing a nineteenth-century hymn by William Rees:

Here is love, cast as the ocean,

Lovingkindness as the flood,

When the Prince of life, our ransom,

Shed for us His precious blood.

Who His love will not remember?

Who can cease to sing His praise?

He can never be forgotten

Through heaven’s eternal days.

 

On the Mount of Crucifixion

Fountains opened deep and wide;

Through the floodgates of God’s mercy

Flowed a vast and gracious tide.

Grace and love, like mighty rivers,

Poured incessant from above,

And heaven’s peace and perfect justice

Kissed a guilty world in love.

            That brings us to the second common misconception. This one pictures God as implacably opposed to us and full of wrath, but somehow mollified by Jesus, who loves us. Once again, if we maintain the right frame, there is some wonderful truth here. The Epistle to the Hebrews certainly lends some support to this way of thinking, especially in its portrayal of Jesus as the high priest who continuously makes intercession to God for us. All of this is modeled on the cultus established at Sinai—or, more precisely, the cultus established at Sinai is meant to be, according to Hebrews, the shadow of the ultimate reality. Again, in 1 John 2:2 Jesus is the Advocate who speaks to the Father in our defense.

But there are other strands of New Testament theology that must be brought to bear. It was God who loved the world so much that he gave his Son (John 3:16). Here it is not that God is reluctant while his Son wins him over; rather, it is God himself who sends his Son. Thus (to return to Hebrews), even if our great high priest intercedes for us and pleads his own blood on our behalf, we must never think of this as an independent action that the Father somehow did not know about reluctantly approved, eventually won over by the independently originating sacrifice of his Son. Rather, Father and Son are one in this project of redemption. The Son himself comes into the world by the express command of the Father.

Thus, when we use the language of propitiation, we are not to think that the Son, full of love, offered himself and thereby placated (i.e., rendered propitious) the Father, full of wrath. The picture is more complex. It is that the Father, full of righteous wrath against us, nevertheless loved us so much that he sent his Son. Perfectly mirroring his Father’s words and deeds, the Son stood over against us in wrath—it is not for the nothing that the Scriptures portray sinners wanting to hide from the face of him who sits on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb—yet, obedient to his Father’s commission, offered himself on the cross. He did this out of love both for his Father, whom he obeys, and for us, whom he redeems. Thus God is necessarily both the subject and object of propitiation. He provides the propitiating sacrifice (he is the subject), and he himself is propitiated (he is the object). That is the glory of the cross.

All this is implicit in the great atonement passage of Romans 3:21-26. After devoting two and a half chapters to showing how the entire race is cursed and rightly under the wrath of God because of its sin (1:18-320), the apostle Paul expounds how Christ’s death was God’s wise plan “to demonstrate his justice at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus” (Rom. 3:26). God presented Jesus as a propitiation in his blood, received through faith (Rom. 3:25).

Pages 66-73

Carson, D.A. The Difficult Doctrine of the Love of God. Wheaton: Crossway. 2000. Print.

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