Preachers today often complain that the concept of sin is so foreign to today’s postmodern mind that it seems nearly impossible to get across. Indeed. But if this is so (perhaps we should say, because this is so), the concept of divine wrath is still more difficult.
How could God be angry—much less very angry—with us?
But of course the notions of sin and wrath are inseparably linked, and Scripture never loses sight of them as such. The biblical writers do not present divine wrath as a necessary attribute of God as he is in himself but as the necessary outworking of God’s holiness in reference to sin. Wrath is the inevitable response of God to all that is contrary to him and therefore in rebellion against him.
THE NATURE OF DIVINE WRATH
The righteousness that God requires of us is not abstract or theoretical. What he requires is that we, creatures made in his image, reflect himfaithfully—that we display (“image”) in our own persons and behavior the moral and ethical uprightness that is characteristic of him. Because (1) we are God’s image-bearers, and because (2) his law is reflective and expressive of him, he cannot but require that we conform. It is one function of his righteousness that he require the same righteousness of us.
It is because of this connection that God has a deep interest in our ethical and moral conduct. For example, measuring scales and all devices for determining honest dealings with others are said, ultimately, to have been issued by God. “Honest scales and balances belong to the LORD; all the weights in the bag are of his making” (Prov. 16:11). Whether we speak in terms of inches, centimeters, pounds, grams, bushels, or ounces, all such “truth” scales are reflective of God’s justice and the justice he requires of us. They all are “from him” in that sense. Accordingly, a just weight delights him, reflecting as it does his own justice. And by the same token, a false balance is repugnant and abhorrent to him as a personal affront and violation of his justice.
All of this figures into the biblical presentation of God’s wrath. Sin is a treacherous refusal of his righteous reign, and given this, God is not indifferent to it. It angers him. In every sin, every transgression of his law, the sinner sets himself in opposition against the lawgiver and thus, inevitably, becomes the object of his holy wrath.
WRATH AND LOVE
We Christians insist that we have “good news” for the world. But not for a moment can we think that the news is good because it has somehow done away with notions of an angry, wrathful God. Wrath is the necessary outworking of God’s holiness in reference to sin. “God is a righteous judge, and a God who feels indignation every day” (Ps. 7:11), and Scripture is replete with reminders and demonstrations of it. From the Flood, Sodom and Gomorrah, the destruction of the Canaanites, and the exile of his own chosen people Israel, to the eschatological battles and the horrors of hell, God has gone to lengths to impress us with the fact of his wrath toward sin.
Moreover, the good news is not that God has side- stepped his justice in order to save us – that he has just let bygones be bygones and overlooked our sin as though it didn’t matter. No, just as his righteousness demands righteousness, so also his righteousness demands punishment for all unrighteousness. “If you eat of that tree you will die” (Gen. 2:17). “The one who sins shall die” (Ezek. 18:20). “The wages of sin is death”(Rom. 6:23). Sin is an outrage, rebellion against the infinitely righteous rule of our Creator, and as such it requires the ultimate penalty.
No, the good news we proclaim and revel in is this: The God who is wrathful against us because of our rebellion against him nevertheless loves us and has made a way to save us on the ground of a full satisfaction of all his righteous demands upon us.
The epistle to the Romans is of course widely recognized as Paul’s fullest exposition of the gospel, and itis significant that this gospel exposition (Rom.3-8) is given in direct answer to the problem of human sin and consequent divine wrath (Rom. 1-3). There are many further provisions graciously bestowed in salvation, but until God’s righteous wrath is answered, no further saving blessing is possible. There is good news – and lots of it! But as it has been said so many times, we cannot begin to understand this good news until we first come to grips with the bad news of divine wrath.
MERCY THROUGH JUDGMENT
In the old covenant system of worship, God rivets our attention on his wrath in a very dramatic way. Israel is God’s chosen people. He has taken them to himself in grace and has promised to dwell with them. But the outstanding question is, how can a holy God dwell in the midst of a sinful people? He cannot surrender his righteousness. And sin still demands condemnation. So how will God dwell among them?
God draws out the answer at length in the Levitical sacrifices, the whole point of which was to offer a substitute who, in place of the offerer, would bear the punishment of sin. In this way “atonement” was made for the people (see especially Lev. 16 and the rituals of the Day of Atonement).
Of particular interest is the expression, “a pleasing aroma to the Lord” (e.g., Lev. 1:9, 13, 17). The point here, of course, is not that God enjoys the smell of barbeque. The point is that the sacrifice was accepted by God, “pleasing” to him in that sense. That is to say, the sacrifice satisfied God. Its leading purpose was to appease God with reference to sin. Here is how God could dwell with a sinful people: a substitute was offered who, standing in place of the people, bore the punishment of their sin, thus making satisfaction to God. Mercy through judgment.
Now of course no mere animal could satisfactorily bear the sin of men and women created in God’simage. But these centuries of sacrifice were intended by God to establish the structure, a picture, by which we are made to think that if an adequate substitute could be found sinful humanity would have hope.
“CHRIST … A FRAGRANT OFFERING TO GOD”
It is in this light that we are brought to understand the death of Christ. The New Testament writers regularly present Jesus’ death in these sacrificial categories. Expressions such as “the blood of hiscross,” “by his blood,” “sacrifice for us,” “the lamb of God who takes away sin,” “a lamb without blemish,” and so on, all reflect an understanding of Christ’s death as sacrifice for sin. “Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” (Eph. 5:2).
Some biblical and theological vocabulary is important here. First, as we have seen, sacrifice. Christ’s death was that of a sacrifice offered to God to make atonement for sin.
Next, substitute. Christ “gave his life a ransom for many” (Matt. 20:28). He “was made a curse forus” (Gal. 3:13). “He who knew no sin was made sin for us” (2 Cor. 5:21). He “bore the sin of many” (Isa. 53:12). The biblical statements are seemingly endless in affirming that Christ, the sinless one from heaven, died in place of sinners, taking their sin to himself and bearing their curse.
Next, propitiation. Christ died as a sacrificial substitute, bearing our sin, in order to appease God and satisfy his wrath against us. “Herein is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins” (1 John 4:10).
The good news is not that God is not angry. The good news is that we have a Substitute who, standing in our place, took the judgment of sin that we had incurred, thus appeasing God’s wrath against us. Endless blessings come to us “in Christ”—forgiveness of sins, transformation of heart and life, familial and loving fellowship with God. But these all come to us because, first, the Lord Jesus overcame the obstacle of our sin by enduring the wrath of God in our place.
GOD THE PROPITIATOR AND THE PROPITIATED
We are not done until we notice clearly that it was this very wrathful God who in love sent his Son to endure his wrath against us. In his death Jesus did not force the hand of an unwilling Judge but carried out the mission of love to which he hadsent him. This is love like no other. And this isgood news indeed.
Editor's Note: This post originally appeared in the April 2015 issue of Credo Magazine and is used with permission.