The doctrine of the wrath of God has fallen on hard times. In today’s world, any concept of God’s wrath upsets our modern sentiments. It’s too disconcerting, too intolerant.
We live in a day where we have set ourselves as the judge and God’s character is on trial. “How can hell be just?” “Why would God command the Israelites to destroy the Canaanites?” “Why does God always seem so angry?”
The fact that so many people struggle with these questions, and many more like them, means that more than ever right thinking is needed about the doctrine of God’s wrath. It is needed for motivation for Christian living, fuel for proper worship, and as a toolbox to confront objections to Christianity.
Here are five biblical truths about the wrath of God:
1. God’s wrath is just
It has become common for many to argue that the God of the Old Testament is a moral monster that is by no means worthy of worship.
However, biblical authors have no such problem. In fact, God’s wrath is said to be in perfect accord with God’s justice. Paul writes, “But because of your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed” (Romans 2:5). God’s wrath, then, is in proportion to human sinfulness.
“God’s wrath is his love in action against sin.”
Similarly, Proverbs 24:12 says, “If you say, ‘Behold, we did not know this,’ does not he who weighs the heart perceive it? Does not he who keeps watch over your soul know it, and will he not repay man according to his work?”
J.I. Packer summarizes: “God’s wrath in the Bible is never the capricious, self-indulgent, irritable, morally ignoble thing that human anger so often is. It is, instead, a right and necessary reaction to objective moral evil” (Knowing God, 151).
2. God’s wrath is to be feared
God’s wrath is to be feared because all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23). God’s wrath is to be feared because we are justly condemned sinners apart from Christ (Romans 5:1). God’s wrath is to be feared because he is powerful enough to do what he promises (Jeremiah 32:17). God’s wrath is to be feared because God promises eternal punishment apart from Christ (Matthew 25:46).
3. God’s wrath is consistent in the Old and New Testaments
It is common to think of the Old Testament God as mean, harsh, and wrath-filled, and the God of the New Testament as kind, patient, and loving. Neither of these portraits are representative of Scripture’s teaching on the wrath of God.
We find immensely fearful descriptions of the wrath of God in both the Old and the New Testament. Here are just a few examples:
“God must act justly and judge sin, otherwise God would not be God.”
Behold the storm of the Lord! Wrath has gone forth, a whirling tempest; it will burst upon the head of the wicked. (Jeremiah 30:23)
The Lord is a jealous and avenging God; the Lord is avenging and wrathful; the Lord takes vengeance on his adversaries and keeps wrath for his enemies. (Nahum 1:2)
For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. (Romans 1:18)
From his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations, and he will rule them with a rod of iron. He will tread the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty. (Revelation 19:15)
4. God’s wrath is his love in action against sin
This is counter-intuitive, but hear me out.
God is love, and God does all things for his glory (1 John 4:8; Romans 11:36). He loves his glory above all (and that is a good thing!). Therefore, God rules the world in such a way that brings himself maximum glory. This means that God must act justly and judge sin (i.e. respond with wrath), otherwise God would not be God. God’s love for his glory motivates his wrath against sin.
Admittedly, God’s love for his own glory is a most sobering reality for many and not good news for sinners. It is after all, “a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Hebrews 10:31).
5. God’s wrath is satisfied in Christ
Here we have the ultimate good news: “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners” (1 Timothy 1:15). Because of Christ, God can rightly call sinners justified (Romans 3:26). God has done what we could not do, and he has done what we didn’t deserve. Charles Wesley rightly exulted in this good news:
And can it be that I should gain
An interest in the Saviour’s blood?
Died he for me, who caused his pain!
For me, who him to death pursued?
Amazing love! How can it be
That thou, my God, shouldst die for me?
“In saving us from his own wrath, God has done what we could not do, and he has done what we didn’t deserve.”