Grappling With God’s Wrath
Wrath. The word conjures up images of vengeance and hatred, out of control anger and violence, even. But this is nothing at all like the concept of wrath that is presented in the Bible as a quality of God. As a subject of study and discussion, the wrath of God is almost unknown in the church today, and there are those who will deny any attempt to attribute wrath to the nature of God. His love and kindness attract a crowd of seekers, but we must not forget that “the Bible labors the point that just as God is good to those who trust him, so he is terrible to those who do not.” This is a starting point to discuss the wrath of God.
J. I. Packer explains that God’s wrath is “a right and necessary reaction to objective moral evil,” that is, it is not capricious or selfish like so much human anger. It is judicial in that wrath is always the act of the Judge, meting out justice. It is something which people choose for themselves, as Jesus taught in John 3:18-19 that men choose to abide in the darkness because of their evil works. In essence, God’s wrath is simply giving man what he has chosen all along: to be without God, defying God, and opposed to God.
To ensure a thoroughly biblical view of wrath, Packer turns to Paul’s epistle to the Romans in which divine wrath is defined, revealed, and its deliverance is proclaimed.
The meaning of God’s wrath. What is God’s wrath? It is none other than his divine action in punishing sin. His hatred of the irreligious and morally corrupt is just as fixed as his love for humble and repentant sinners. God’s wrath, then, is simply an expression of his justice.
The revelation of God’s wrath. Paul declares this plainly in 1:18 when he says, “the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who suppress the truth in unrighteousness.” The Lord is constantly and thoroughly displaying his wrath in the consciences of men, by which all men know that their actions are worthy of condemnation, and in this world by observing the pattern of corruption and decay which characterizes every venture of mankind. Packer states simply, “If you want proof that the wrath of God, revealed as a fact in your conscience, is already working as a force in the world, Paul would say you need only look at life around you and see what God has ‘given them over to.’”
The deliverance from God’s wrath. Is there any hope for deliverance from the judgment of God that must surely come? Can his wrath be avoided by any means? The answer is, ‘yes.’ Paul explains in 5:8-9 that Jesus Christ died for us, so that we might be made righteous by his blood, and if we have been justified, then we will also be delivered from the wrath of God by the same. And so Packer reminds us that “between us sinners and the thunderclouds of divine wrath stands the cross of the Lord Jesus.”
No doubt this topic of God’s wrath has been mishandled and misused in the past. The proper correction for such abuses is not to ignore it or abandon it, but to pursue a biblical understanding of it. Packer’s reminder here is helpful, that “if we would know God, it is vital that we face the truth concerning his wrath, however unfashionable it may be, and however strong our initial prejudices against it. Otherwise we shall not understand the gospel of salvation from wrath, nor the propitiatory achievement of the cross, nor the wonder of the redeeming love of God.”