A few weeks ago, I helped a friend put together a cute outfit for an upcoming interview. She sent me numerous photos of herself wearing various combinations of cardigans, shirts, and pants. Finally, after about 45 minutes, we came up with the perfect outfit. All it needed was a necklace. I asked her what options she had available: she responded with a photo of a giant mass of tangled necklaces. Her four-year-old daughter had gotten into her jewelry box! My friend desperately worked at untangling that mess of jumbled jewelry without success.
Trying to discuss just one attribute of our infinite, intricate God can feel like trying to untangle the impossible. Wayne Grudem, in his excellent book, Systematic Theology, explains the reason for the difficulty: “Every attribute of God that we find in Scripture is true of all of God’s being, and we, therefore, can say that every attribute of God also qualifies every other attribute.” Because God’s attributes qualify one another, they can be difficult to unravel.
The wrath of God is an attribute that evokes a wide range of responses, all of which are proportional to the individual’s depth of understanding of it. In order to properly understand God’s wrath, we must refer to the Bible to make sure we grasp what God has revealed about Himself. We can more fully appreciate this facet of His character as we consider how His wrath is intertwined with His other attributes.
What is God’s Wrath?
Wrath is classified as a communicable attribute of God because it is an attribute of God that we can share with Him. However, this does not mean that we display wrath in our broken humanness in the same way that He displays His. Our negative experience of human wrath often distorts our ability to see His wrath as a positive attribute. Yet, we know that God is perfectly good, so His wrath will be no different.
Webster’s dictionary defines wrath as “strong vengeful anger or indignation” and “retributory punishment for an offense or a crime.” When we rebel against God and His commands in action or attitude, it is sin, and therefore a crime against God. God feels strong anger (or wrath) towards the sin and is justified in punishing the guilty sinner (Romans 2:5).
God expresses His wrath on both sides of eternity. God displays His wrath on this side of eternity when He allows unbelievers to pursue their sin unrestrained (Romans 1:18-32). They then experience the enslavement and misery that results from their sin (Romans 6:16). After we die, we will all stand before the judgment seat of Jesus at the Final Judgment (Hebrews 9:27, Revelation 20:11-15). Then, God’s wrath will be expressed toward those who are found to be guilty of sin. This wrath, however, is far worse than the wrath experienced on earth. The punishment following the final judgment will be frightening, irreversible, eternal torment in Hell (Hebrews 10:31, Matthew 13:50, Revelation 14:10-11).
God’s wrath is interconnected with His holiness and His justice.
God’s wrath is an expression of His holiness. God is perfectly holy (Leviticus 19:2). He is without any sin, and His holiness requires that He must not approve of or be indifferent to sin, but He must hate it (Psalm5:4). J.I. Packer in his book, Knowing God, explains, “Would a God who took as much pleasure in evil as he did in good be a good God? Would a God who did not react adversely to evil in his world be morally perfect? Surely not. But it is precisely this adverse reaction to evil, which is a necessary part of moral perfection, that the Bible has in view when it speaks of God’s wrath.” Because God is holy, He MUST exhibit wrath against sin. To fail in His wrath would be failure to accomplish the holiness that sets Him apart as good.
God’s wrath is an expression of His justice. God is the perfect judge (Psalm 7:11). When a crime is committed, the guilty party must be found guilty and then punished for his or her actions. We know this to be necessary because our hearts demand justice and fair punishment for atrocities committed in our world, and we rejoice when an offender has been caught, proven guilty, and rightfully punished (Romans 2:15). Our God, as the perfect judge, convicts for wrongdoing and delivers the perfect penalty—for not only these horrendous acts but for all evil committed. Because God is just, He MUST also exhibit wrath against sin. To fail in His wrath would be failure in displaying appropriate justice against injustice.
God’s wrath is tied to His mercy and love.
We must realize that ultimately, we all deserve to experience God’s wrath since we are all guilty of sin (Romans 3:23). God’s character demands that the penalty is paid for our sin. However, this is not the end of the story. God is also a God of infinite mercy and love. It is the simultaneous existence of God’s mercy and love, intertwined with His justice and wrath, which allow for God to provide a substitute for us, even though justice demands that we pay for our sin (Ephesians 2:4-5).
God, motivated by His perfect love, offered Himself as the perfect substitute (John 3:16). Jesus lived a perfect, sinless life, and then He willingly suffered and died on the cross. During His time on the cross, the cup of the wrath of God was poured out on Jesus, when it should have been poured out on us. Jesus experienced the punishment of eternal hell on behalf of those who would believe in Him. Three days later, Jesus resurrected from the dead, showing that He has power over death.
This is the Gospel message—that God met the demands of His own holiness, justice, and wrath on our behalf—and it is a message full of mercy and love. Those who turn from their pursuit of sin and turn toward obedience to God out of their belief in this message will not come under judgment for their sin (John 3:36, 5:24, Hebrews 8:12). Rather, when the time for God’s judgment comes, believers will be declared forgiven of their sin and free from God’s wrath, as a result of Jesus’s suffering on the cross (1 Thessalonians 1:10).
The wrath of God is a beautiful aspect of God’s character. It is meant to lead us to an attitude of gratefulness and worship of the God of our salvation. As Paul states in 1 Thessalonians 5:9, “God has not destined us for wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ.” God’s wrath is final and terrible for those who are perishing apart from Him, but for those who respond to God’s call in faith, His wrath leads us to far greater comprehension of the mercy and love shown to us in His Son.
Editor's note: this originally published at Thinking & Theology.