- THE NEGLECT OF THE WRATH OF GOD
“Where is the God of love in the Old Testament?” or “How can you believe in a God of love with so much suffering in the world?” These questions are often asked because people’s sentimental liberal concept of the love of God is out of step. As Goethe put it, “the whole course of history shows that the God of providence and the severe Jehovah of the Hebrews are one and the same.” This is the dilemma faced by so many in the West today. The sentimental view of the love of God that is proclaimed almost without respite by the Western churches may appear very attractive, but it is not in the last resort credible.
For most Western Christians, hate is the last word that could be associated with love. But a love that does not contain hatred of evil is not the love of which the Bible speaks. It is most fitting therefore that a volume on God’s love should include an essay on the wrath of God. This is necessary, not because we need to balance God’s wrath with his love, as rival attributes, but because God’s love itself implies his wrath. Without his wrath God is simply not loving in the sense that the Bible portrays his love.
The modern silence regarding God’s wrath is well described by R. P. C. Hanson: “Most preachers and most composers of prayers today treat the biblical doctrine of the wrath of God very much as if it is there, but it must never be alluded to because it is in an undefined way shameful God is love; therefore, we must not associate him with wrath. God is love; therefore, he is indefinitely tolerant. Presumably it is for such reasons that the Christian churches of the twentieth century have in practice turned their backs upon the biblical doctrine of the wrath of God.”
But it was not always treated this way. Should the wrath of God be preached? Leaving aside the fact that such a sermon would not be appropriate in our current age, is the picture of God presented true to the Bible? Is the manner of presenting the wrath of God in keeping with the emphasis of the New Testament? This question will be answered in due course.
The problem with today’s theology and preaching is not that the wrath of God is exaggerated but rather that it is muted or even suppressed. There are four different ways in which this happens. These will be considered in turn, with the greatest emphasis on the third.
The first way is simply ignoring the topic and this approach has become very common, irrespective of the wealth of material in the Bible about God’s wrath. Open denial is more likely to be found at a popular level. As often happens, the unsophisticated layperson expresses bluntly what some more sophisticated theologians really think but are not prepared to state it openly.
The second, more sophisticated, way is the theological approach of Marcion, believing that God is revealed only in Jesus Christ. Marcion differentiated between the wrathful God of justice revealed in the Old Testament and the merciful God of love revealed in the New Testament. The Marcionite gospel applies to much contemporary preaching today. Tertullian said that in terms of this gospel: “a better god has been discovered, one who is neither offended nor angry nor inflicts punishment, who has no fire warming up in hell, and no outer darkness wherein there is shuddering and gnashing of teeth: he is merely kind. Of course, he forbids you to sin — but only in writing.” Marcion views God as a being of simple goodness, to the exclusion of all other attributes (like his wrath), which are transferred to the Creator God. When Marcion’s God delivers humanity, he rescues us from a rival God, the Creator God of the Old Testament. Furthermore, Marcion’s God issues commands. But “to what purpose does he lay down commands if he will not require performance, or prohibit transgressions if he is not to exact penalties, if he is incapable of judgement, a stranger to all emotions of severity and reproof?” Again, Marcion’s God is not really offended by sin. Tertullian says, “A God can only be completely good if he is the enemy of the bad, so as to put his love of good into action by hatred of the bad, and discharge his wardship of the good by the overthrowing of the bad. We must reject the Marcionite view that the contrast between the God of the O.T. and the God of the N.T. is the difference between a wrathful, avenging deity and a loving Father who is incapable of anger.”
There is a third and more subtle way in which the wrath of God is undermined. C. H. Dodd offers a reinterpretation of the concept. “Paul never uses the verb, ‘to be angry,’ with God as subject.” While the original meaning of “the wrath of God” was the passion of anger, by the time of Paul it had come to refer to an impersonal process of cause and effect, the inevitable result of sin. Thus, “anger as an attitude of God to men disappears, and His love and mercy become all-embracing. This is, as I believe, the purport of the teaching of Jesus, with its emphasis on limitless forgiveness.” Essentially Paul agrees, but he retains the concept of the wrath of God, “which does not appear in the teaching of Jesus, unless we press certain features of the parables in an illegitimate manner.” In Paul the wrath of God describes not “the attitude of God to man” but “an inevitable process of cause and effect in a moral universe.”
God is not to be thought of as angry and loving, either at the same time or alternately. We should not speak of “God’s displeasure,” because displeasure suggests a personal feeling in God. “The wrath of God is wholly impersonal and does not describe an attitude of God but a condition of men.” It is purely an inevitable by-product of sin, not in any way willed by God.
How should this approach be assessed? According to D. E. H. Whiteley, there is more common ground than is sometimes acknowledged. So, it is appropriate to begin by recognizing the positive points in the Dodd approach.
First, it must be recognized that while God is rightly described in human terms, we must recognize that these terms are true by analogy rather than univocally. But of course, this is not true only of the wrath of God. We must not fall into the error of equating the divine love with human love in all its imperfection and distortion. We cannot deny that there is a reality to which God’s love corresponds. What that reality is, is precisely the point at dispute.
Second, the wrath of God should not be understood in a crudely literal fashion. The divine wrath is very different from human wrath. It should certainly not be understood as an irrational passion, to use Dodd’s words. As John Stott puts it, God’s wrath against sin does not mean that He loses his temper for no apparent reason at all. For there is nothing arbitrary about the holy God. Nor is He ever malicious, spiteful or vindictive. His anger is neither mysterious nor irrational. It is never unpredictable but always predictable, because it is provoked by evil and by evil alone. Almost every writer on this topic emphasizes the dangers of understanding God’s wrath in terms of human anger.
Third, it can be conceded that there is in the New Testament a tendency to depersonalize the wrath of God. In the N.T., and particularly in Paul’s letters, focus is more on God’s love than on His wrath.
Finally, there are two different points to be noted here. First, God is love, yet one could not say that God is wrath. In other words, love is a fundamental and eternal attribute of God, while wrath is more than an out- working of God’s character in response to sin. His wrath is his response to something outside of himself. Second, it is also true that before creation God had no occasion to exercise his mercy. But this does not put wrath and mercy on the same footing. The Old Testament repeatedly affirms God’s reluctance to exercise his wrath and his delight in showing mercy.
There is much that is true in Dodd’s thesis. God’s wrath is not to be taken in a crudely literal fashion. It is not to be put on the same level as the love of God, and the New Testament does tend to speak of it in impersonal terms. But having gladly conceded these points we must point to the serious deficiency in the Dodd thesis: the reduction of the wrath of God to merely a process of cause and effect. The problem lies not with what Dodd affirms but with what he denies.
There are various problems with the purely impersonal view of God’s wrath. It is not right to say that God feels displeasure toward the sin but not the sinner. They make no differentiation between those passages which speak of God’s wrath against sinners and those which speak of his wrath against sin.
Of course, those who talk about impersonal wrath appears to dissociate God from wrath and punishment, to portray wrath as a mere by-product of sin, not actually willed by God. Such a position is not free of deistic implications. This approach is avowedly contrary to the teaching of the Old Testament; it is based upon a particular interpretation of Paul and is supported by a truncated (as we shall argue) appeal to the teaching of Jesus. The similarities to Marcion are striking.
But what about the biblical evidence? Space permits no more than a brief review. First, let us look at the Old Testament. There is about twenty different words used for God’s wrath and they appear more than 580 times in the O.T. Wherever in the O.T, one finds a reference to the love of God, his wrath is always in the background, either explicitly or implicitly, and we neglect this element. This wrath is God’s displeasure and his venting of it, the opposite of his good pleasure. Because of his holiness, righteousness, and justice, God is by nature intolerant of sin and impurity. If God enacts punishing judgment, he does not do that ‘emotionlessly’. He is then very angry concerning sin, injustice and blasphemy. God’s vengeance is not an impersonal, cold disciplinary action but it is a retribution in which the heat of God’s deep indignation is sometimes evident. Indeed, it is largely because wrath is so fully personal in the Old Testament that mercy becomes so fully personal, for mercy is the action of the same God who was angry, allowing His wrath to be turned away.
What about the New Testament? Jesus is saying well over twice as much about the wrath of God as he ever did about His love. It is true that Jesus does not use the word “wrath” in relation to God except in Luke 21:23 (“There will be great distress in the land and wrath against this people”), where it is impossible to deny that the wrath referred to is God’s. But there are many passages where he clearly expresses the divine hostility to all that is evil, though without using the actual term “wrath.”
What about the parables? In the parable of the unmerciful servant, the master in anger hands him over to the jailers to be tortured (Matt. 18:34). In the parable of the wedding feast, the master is angry at the excuses made by the invited guests (Luke 14:21.
What about Paul? The impersonal character of his talk about God’s wrath should be acknowledged, but not exaggerated. In the first chapter of Romans Paul three times states of the depraved that God “gave them over” to various sins (vv. 24, 26, 28). Again, Romans 3:5 speaks of God bringing wrath upon us, which suggests an active role on God’s part. Romans 12:19 refers to God’s wrath in impersonal terms, but Paul proceeds to state that vengeance is God’s and he will repay. In short, while much of Paul’s talk about God’s wrath is relatively impersonal, the evidence of his writings as a whole is that he did not wish to eliminate the concept of wrath. The idea of an actual attitude of God cannot be disputed in respect of many NT verses. If this conclusion is at least plausible for the teaching of Paul, it is much clearer in Hebrews.
Finally, there are places where judgment of sin in this age is portrayed as the direct act of God (Acts 5:1-11; 12:23; 1 Cor. 11:30; Rev. 2:22-23). The case that God’s wrath is purely an impersonal process of cause and effect, the inevitable consequence of sin in a moral universe, can be maintained only with considerable difficulty. No passage in either Testament is alleged that denies the personal and affective nature of God’s wrath. The case rests simply on an argument from the (alleged and highly contestable) silence of Jesus and Paul.
The fourth way in which God’s wrath is muted is that found in the majority of Western evangelical churches today. The wrath of God is not denied and is indeed given formal recognition but the subject of divine wrath has become taboo in modern society, and Christians by and large have accepted the taboo and conditioned themselves never to raise the matter. This is a very serious matter as a theology which uses the language of Christianity can be tested by its attitude towards the Biblical doctrine of the wrath of God, whether it means what the words of Scripture say. Where the idea of the wrath of God is ignored there also will there be no understanding of the central conception of the Gospel: the uniqueness of the revelation in the Mediator.
The contemporary rejection by Christians of the biblical doctrine of the wrath of God is a typical example of our allowing secular, non-Christian ideas to creep into our understanding of the Christian faith in such a way as to distort it. The sentimentality of the Enlightenment has given birth to a sentimental view of God and his love, one that suits carol services at Christmas but does not cohere either with Scripture or with empirical reality. Christians are, of course, not exempt from these pressures, and sentimental, anthropocentric views of God are to be found in almost every sector of the modern Western church.
- THE WRATH OF GOD AND ITS RELATION TO OTHER DOCTRINES
The conclusion thus far is that God’s wrath is to be understood neither as purely impersonal nor in crudely anthropomorphic terms. So, to what does “the wrath of God” refer? It is God’s personal, vigorous opposition both to evil and to evil people. This is a steady, unrelenting antagonism that arises from God’s very nature, his holiness. It is God’s revulsion to evil and all that opposes him, his displeasure at it and the venting of that displeasure. It is his passionate resistance to every will that is set against him.
These “definitions” raise an issue that is often ignored. What is the object of God’s wrath? Is God angry with evil or with evil people? In the New Testament both are true. Often God’s wrath is referred to without precisely specifying the object of that wrath (e.g., Matt. 3:7; Luke 3:7; Rom. 4:15; Rev. 14:19; 15:1, 7). In one place the object of God’s wrath is evil (Rom. 1:18), although even here the perpetrators are mentioned. Where an object is mentioned it is usually evildoers (e.g., Luke 21:23; John 3:36; Rom. 2:5, 8; Eph. 5:6; Col. 3:6; 1 Thess. 2:16). Thus, a comprehensive verdict would be to say that God’s wrath is directed primarily against evildoers because of the evil that they do.
Where does this leave the modern cliché that “God hates the sin but loves the sinner”? Like most clichés it is a half-truth. There are two ways in which it could be taken. The first, which is undoubtedly the way that most people take it in the modern liberal West, is as a comment about the wrath of God. God’s displeasure is against sin but not against the sinner. Apart from the fact that this reverses the emphasis of the New Testament, there are problems with it. As William Temple observes, “that is a shallow psychology which regards the sin as something merely separate from the sinner, which he can lay aside like a suit of clothes. My sin is the wrong direction of my will; and my will is just myself as far as I am active. If God hates the sin, what He hates is not an accretion attached to my real self; it is myself, as that self now exists.” It is incoherent to say that God is displeased with child molestation but feels no displeasure toward child molesters. In what sense, then, is the cliché true? It is to be understood not as limiting the objects of God’s displeasure to sinful actions but as affirming God’s grace. God loves sinners, not in the sense that he does not hate them along with their sin, but in the sense that he seeks their salvation in Christ. While his attitude to sinners as sinners is antagonism and wrath, his good will toward them actively seeks their conversion and forgiveness.
But does the Bible ever talk of God actually hating people? Mostly it speaks of God hating evil deeds (e.g., Deut. 12:31; Prov. 6:16-19; Isa. 61:8; Amos 6:8; Rev. 2:6), but there are seven passages that speak of his hatred for people. First, there is the statement that God loved Jacob but hated Esau (Mal. 1:2-3; Rom. 9:13). We should beware of reading too much into this given the question of the extent to which it is individuals or nations that are in mind, and the question of whether “hate” here is to be understood as in the injunction to hate one’s own relatives and one’s own life (Luke 14:26; cf. Matt. 10:37). Second, it is thrice stated that God hates evildoers (Psalm 5:5; 11:5; Prov. 6:16-19). Finally, God twice states that he hates Israel (Jer. 12:8; Hos. 9:15). Clearly these last affirmations do not preclude God’s love for Israel, as is proclaimed especially by Hosea. Perhaps we would remain closest to the emphasis of the Bible if we spoke of God’s hatred of sin and his wrath against sinners, though we cannot exclude talk of God’s wrath against sin or his hatred of sinners. A new slogan might be “God hates the sin and is angry with the sinner.”
Two of the leading theologians of the church have tackled the question of God’s love and hate. Augustine, in discussing the atonement, warns against the idea that God did not begin to love us until Christ died for us. He wrestles with the tension between the fact that Christ’s death flows from God’s love for us (Rom. 5:8) and the fact that God hates evildoers (Ps. 5:5). He reaches the paradox that God both hated and loved us. He hated us for our sin and loved us for that which sin had not ruined and which is capable of being healed. Thomas Aquinas also tackles Psalm 5:5. He maintains that “God loves sinners as being real things of nature,” as created. But “in so far as they are sinners they are unreal and deficient” and as such God “holds them in hatred.” Again, wrestling with Malachi 1:2-3, Thomas notes that “God loves all men and all creatures as well, inasmuch as he wills some good to all.” But at the same time, “in that he does not will to some the blessing of eternal life he is said to hold them in hate or to reprobate them.”
The wrath of God relates to a number of other themes, some of which can be mentioned briefly in passing. The first theme is the question of the moral order and the exercise of moral judgment. Jonathan Sacks laments the situation that prevails in our society, a situation that is not unrelated to the rejection of the wrath of God. In our society, he maintains, the word “judgmental” is used “to rule out in advance the offering of moral judgement.” He gives the recent example of a church leader who was lambasted for daring to criticize adultery. Adultery is acceptable; judgment is not. A worthy and biblical reticence in passing judgment on individuals has been confused with an unwillingness to make moral judgments, to distinguish between what is morally good and what is evil. “So morality becomes a matter of taste and choice.” S. T. Davis argues that the wrath of God rescues us from just such a moral relativism by showing us that right and wrong are objectively real and pointing us to the moral significance of our deeds.
The second theme is the fear of God. Together with the demise of the wrath of God there is the rejection of fear as a valid motive. This is another of those dangerous half-truths. Augustine rightly observed that the person who fears hell fears burning, not sin. The mainstream Christian tradition has always recognized that true obedience is motivated not by fear but by love. It is not a reluctant, fearful, slavish obedience that God seeks but a joyful, free response of love. But the mainstream Christian tradition has not been so naive as to imagine that this dispenses with the need for fear. Augustine came to recognize that the free response of love is often preceded by the constraints of coercion. Children need initially to be disciplined at least in part by fear. But if the process of discipline is successful the values being conveyed are internalized. That which initially is done in order to avoid parental disapproval or punishment is done freely and willingly. The motivation of fear is not invalid (as is so often implied today) but insufficient. Jesus had no qualms about telling his disciples to “fear him who, after the killing of the body, has power to throw you into hell” (Luke 12:5).75 Lactantius notes that there is no true religion or piety without some fear of God and that without the wrath of God there is no fear of God. “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom” (Prov. 9:10), and while the term “fear” here embraces much more than the fear of God’s anger, it does not exclude it.
A third theme is the doctrine of hell. It is very popular today to portray hell as locked on the inside only. God’s role in condemning people to hell is simply reluctantly and sorrowfully to consent to the choice that they have made. Again, we have here a half-truth. The mainstream Christian tradition has always acknowledged that God’s “No” to the unrepentant at the Last Judgment is in response to their “No” to him in this life. Again, the Bible testifies to God’s reluctance in executing judgment (e.g., Ezek. 33:11; 2 Pet. 3:9). But there is another side to the picture that should not be suppressed. It is not enough to say that God’s punishment is simply the sinner punishing himself. God’s role in judgment is not merely passive. The final judgment involves God’s wrath as well as his sorrow (e.g., Rom. 2:5, 8; 1 Thess 1:10). While it remains true that those who are lost have excluded themselves from heaven, it is also true that God actively excludes those who at least at one level wish to be included (e.g., Matt. 22:11-13). Jesus emphasized not the difficulty of escaping from God’s grace but the need to strive for it: “Make every effort to enter through the narrow door, because many, I tell you, will try to enter and will not be able to” (Luke 13:24). He stressed not the perpetuity of the opportunity to enter but the great danger of ignoring it until too late (e.g., Matt. 25:1-13; Luke 16:26).
The final theme is the cross. Belief in the wrath of God has, as its correlate, belief in the work of Christ in dealing with that wrath. Those who recognize God’s wrath as affectus have been more willing to say that Christ on the cross bore in our place the wrath that was our due.
- THE WRATH OF GOD AND THE LOVE OF GOD
The time has come to turn to our central concern, namely the relation between the wrath of God and the love of God. In the popular imagination they are simply opposed to one another. It is the thesis of this essay that God’s wrath should be seen as an aspect of his love, as a consequence of his love. As Barth puts it, if we truly love God, “we must love Him also in His anger, condemnation and punishments, or rather we must see, feel and appreciate His love to us even in His anger, condemnation and punishment.” In seeking to do this we will need to explore the ways in which God’s wrath both expresses his love and can be contrasted with it — though it might be happier to contrast wrath with mercy, seeing both as expressions of God’s love.
First we should note that there is no true love without wrath. The Old Testament teaching on the wrath of God has been summarized thus: “the wrath of YHWH is a personal quality, without which YHWH would cease to be fully righteous and His love would degenerate into sentimentality.” Anders Nygren likewise accuses the Marcionite view of love, which is separated from the idea of judgment, of sentimentality. “Only that love which pronounces judgment on all that is not love is in the truest sense restoring and saving love.” Paul’s injunction that love be sincere is followed by the command to hate what is evil (Rom. 12:9). A husband who did not respond to his wife’s infidelity with a jealous anger would thereby demonstrate his lack of care for her.
Failure to hate evil implies a deficiency in love. Can God be the good and loving God if He did not react to human evil with wrath? A person who knows, for example, about the injustice and cruelty of abortion and is not angry at such wickedness cannot be a thoroughly good person; for his or her lack of wrath means a failure to care for the helpless, a failure to love. The basic point, that lack of wrath against wickedness is a lack of caring which is a lack of love, is indisputable. Absolute love implies absolute purity and absolute holiness: an intense burning light Unless God detests sin and evil with great loathing, He cannot be a God of Love.
Indeed, P. T. Forsyth daringly states that “the love of God is not more real than the wrath of God.” But while this is a bold way of summarizing the point made in the previous paragraph, Forsyth was well aware that it needs qualification. The wrath of God is a reality not to be denied or explained away. The wrath of God is not the ultimate reality; it is the divine reality which corresponds to sin. But it is not the essential reality of God. In Himself God is love. In the cross we see the reality of wrath, which is yet in some way a subordinate reality, and the far more overwhelming reality of the love of God. The love of God is in fact fully understood only in the light of the cross. If God’s love is seen simply as a general truth it either loses its holiness or becomes limited by it.
The fallacy of those who deny the wrath of God lies in the attempt to reduce God purely to love. In particular, the holiness of God must not be suppressed. P. T. Forsyth has made this point forcefully with his talk of “the holy love of God.” Our starting point should be “the supreme holiness of God’s love, rather than its pity, sympathy, or affection,” this being “the watershed between the Gospel and the theological liberalism which makes religion no more than the crown of humanity.” “If we spoke less about God’s love and more about His holiness, more about His judgment, we should say much more when we did speak of His love.”
Here we come to an issue that divides. Should we think of God’s love and his holiness, his mercy and his wrath, as attributes that somehow need to be reconciled to one another?
Forsyth objects to the idea that there is a “strife of attributes” in God between justice and mercy, stressing by contrast that God’s attributes are not somehow entities separable from him. R. P. C. Hanson equally rejects the idea, accusing it of “an unpleasant suggestion that God suffers from schizophrenia, and is not quite in control of himself.”
Others defend the concept. Stott takes issue with Forsyth, pointing to passages in both Old and New Testaments that acknowledge a “duality” in God. It is in the cross above all that God makes both his holiness and his love known simultaneously. “The objective aspect of the Atonement . . . consists in the combination of inflexible righteousness, with its penalties, and transcendent love.” “The love of God breaks through the wrath of God.” There is a “dualism” of holiness and love.
Only where this dualism exists, only where God is known as One who “outside Christ” is really angry, but “in Christ” is “pure love,” is faith real decision and the Atonement a real turning point. Therefore the dualism of holiness and love, of revelation and concealment, of mercy and wrath cannot be dissolved, changed into one synthetic conception, without at the same time destroying the seriousness of the Biblical knowledge of God, the reality and the mystery of revelation and atonement Here arises the “dialectic” of all genuine Christian theology, which simply aims at expressing in terms of thought the indissoluble nature of this dualism.
In God’s innermost being, his attributes are perfectly united. There is no love of God that is not holy and no holiness of God that is not loving. There is nowhere where God is love but not light, and nowhere where he is light but not love. Likewise, God’s love and his justice are united in his essential nature. But the holy, loving God acts differently toward us in different circumstances. In his holy, loving wrath he judges us for our sins. In his holy, loving mercy he forgives our sins. It is mistaken to divide the attributes by suggesting that wrath is the manifestation of holiness or justice, but not of love. It is equally mistaken to suggest that mercy is the manifestation of love, but not of holiness or justice. But there is a clear duality in God’s dealings with humanity. In salvation history, in Christ, and in Scripture we see God acting both in wrath and judgement and in mercy and forgiveness. Clearly these two differ and are in some sense contrary to one another. Yet both originate from the one holy, loving God.
Thomas Aquinas asks whether justice and mercy are found in all of God’s works. He concludes that “in every one of God’s works justice and mercy are found.” But he also concedes that “some works are associated with justice and some with mercy when the one more forcibly appears than the other. Yet mercy appears even in the damnation of the reprobate, for though not completely relaxed the penalty is sometimes softened, and is lighter than deserved. And justice appears even in the justification of the sinner, when fault is forgiven because of the love which God himself in mercy bestows.” It is in line with this principle to understand Romans 3:25-26 as at least in part referring to the way in which God’s justice is maintained in the justification of the unjust. The cross involves the harmonization in historical outworking of attributes that are united in the eternal nature of God.
But while both wrath and mercy have their origins in the holy love of God, how do they relate together “where the rubber hits the road”? How does God’s wrath cohere with his love? R. P. C. Hanson rejects the idea that “God is somehow loving and angry at the same time,” on the grounds that wrath is not an attitude or characteristic of God. J. S. Stewart likewise rejects the idea that God’s wrath means that he “for the time lays aside His love and acts like a man who has lost his temper.” And yet the matter is not so simply resolved. Paul tells us that while we were still sinners (and therefore under the wrath of God) God showed his love for us in Christ’s death (Rom. 5:8). The juxtaposition of love and wrath is clear. As Stott puts it, God’s wrath is free from personal vindictiveness and “he is sustained simultaneously with undiminished love for the offender.” It is also clear that wrath and mercy conflict and alternate in our experience. One who is by nature a child of wrath (Eph. 2:3) encounters the mercy of God and is saved from the coming wrath (Rom. 5:9; 1 Thess. 1:10). In this sense, for the converted sinner wrath and mercy are two distinct and non- overlapping experiences. Again, the Old Testament speaks of the mercy of God restraining and limiting his wrath.
A question needs to be asked at this stage. It has been argued that God’s wrath against sinners is matched by his love for them and that these two come together supremely in the cross. But to affirm that God loves the object of his wrath falls short of saying that his wrath toward that person expresses his love for that person. It has indeed been argued that God’s love necessitates his wrath. But this has been argued from his love for righteousness rather than his love for the object of his wrath. Can it be argued that his wrath against a particular sinner is demanded by his love for that particular sinner? In answering that question, we have to distinguish between God’s wrath here and now, where it can lead to repentance, and God’s wrath in the final judgment, where there is no further opportunity for repentance. In the case of living human beings, wrath plays its subsidiary role in God’s dealings with them. The wrath of God serves to show us the seriousness of our sin and as such is a part of God’s loving dealings with us. The situation is clearly different where the opportunity for repentance has ceased. It is less obvious how God’s wrath against those who are finally lost is an expression of his love toward them in particular.
There is no dichotomy in God’s being between his mercy and his wrath, but there is a clear dichotomy between them in the way that they encounter us. Sorrow for sin are being tempered by remembrance of God’s mercy to avoid despair; that contemplation of God’s mercy be tempered with remembrance of his judgment to avoid lukewarm negligence — is in harmony with the balance of the teaching of the Bible.
One further way of holding together wrath and love needs to be considered. Wrath is but love spurned. Judgment is according to one’s response to the love of God in Jesus Christ (John 3:16-21, 36). But why is this? If wrath is nothing more than rejected love, God is open to the following charge: “Why does he get so angry, then, when we just want to be left alone?” But there is more to the story than simply jilted love. We are God’s creatures and owe him our love and obedience. We are sinful people who have been “bought at a price” (1 Cor. 6:20). We are not autonomous beings receiving overtures of love from a neo-Marcionite God who has no more claims upon us than the romantic affections of a stranger. The love that is being spurned is the love of Creator for creature, of the One who has redeemed us at great cost. To reject such love is to turn one’s back upon one’s only hope and to consign oneself to wrath and judgment.
Some of the authors whom we have considered seem to feel that it is impossible for love and anger to coexist. Far more profound is P. T. Forsyth: “True love is quite capable of being angry, and must be angry and even sharp with its beloved children.” “For He can be really angry only with those He loves.” Although A. T. Hanson insists that in the biblical teaching on God’s wrath the idea of discipline is almost totally absent, there may be some value in considering the disciplining of a child as an analogy. Suppose a child wilfully and maliciously hurts another child. In what way is the disciplining of that child an expression of love? It expresses the parent’s love for righteousness and detestation of cruelty. It expresses love for the victim in the form of concern for what has been done. It expresses love for the perpetrator in that it is intended as discipline. Finally, it expresses love for society in the disciplining of the child. Those who let undisciplined children loose on society show not love but lack of concern for their children and even greater lack of concern for their future victims in the rest of society.
The social implications apply also to God’s wrath, which must not be understood in purely individual terms. “The love of God is not just good affections, but it can be expressed as wrath and jealousy,” notes H. G. L. Peels. He continues to observe that a ruler would not be showing love for his people if he were to allow an enemy to run roughshod over them. Lactantius also emphasizes that the wrath of God is needed to maintain good order in society, which is incumbent upon God if he is loving. Paul, of course, teaches that God’s wrath functions in part through the organs of law and order (Rom. 13:4-5).123 The claim that God’s wrath is an expression of love is wider than the claim that it expresses love for its victim. It is also an expression of God’s love for other human beings. There may be situations, such as with God’s wrath against the impenitent in the final judgment, where wrath expresses love without expressing love for its object.
The love of God and the wrath of God are not ultimately in contradiction, but there is a tension between them. The proclamation concerning the living God ultimately and finally defies a logical systematization. This does not prevent us from exploring the correlation between God’s wrath and his love, but it does warn us against imagining that we have completed the task.
(Source: The Wrath of God as an Aspect of the Love of God – Tony Lane)