If you primarily think of God as your buddy, or if you view the Christian life in largely sentimental terms, then the attribute of God we’re highlighting this week might kill the mood. I’m talking about God’s wrath. Like holiness and mercy, attributes that we’ve already looked at, wrath is another integral part of God’s character.
To the surprise of some Christians, God’s wrath is not an obscure topic tucked away in some neglected book of the Minor Prophets. It’s actually a very prominent theme throughout God’s Word. Admittedly, thinking about God’s wrath is usually more sobering than it is encouraging. However, if we want to grow in our knowledge of God, and given that he chose to reveal so much about his judgment in the pages of Scripture, then this is a topic that every Christian should be familiar with.
God’s Wrath is Anything But Arbitrary
Since the idea of God’s wrath is often misunderstood, it’s important that we know what it does not mean. For some, God’s wrath conjures up notions of an unhappy deity who arbitrarily flies off the handle. This kind of god specializes in punishing people for minor infractions. Thankfully, this is a far cry from the God of the Bible, whose judgment is anything but arbitrary.
God has warned us: “The wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23). Only his mercy, his patience, and his overarching purposes prevent him from punishing all sin immediately. God’s wrath is his righteous response to our sin, punishing every transgression. Rebellion against an infinitely holy God is deserving of infinite punishment. Adam and Eve found out the terrible consequences of sin after one transgression (Genesis 3). Just as we expect earthly judges to punish criminals, so God’s wrath is his righteous response to sin. Anything less would be unjust.
Old and New
Another misconception when it comes to God’s wrath has to do with the idea that this is a truth confined to the Old Testament. The God of the Old Testament was angry and vindictive, it is said. But then, thankfully, Jesus came along and showed us a more loving way. It’s as if God got in a better mood just prior to Christ’s birth. There are a number of problems with this distorted portrait.
First, God is perfect and he never changes. It is therefore impossible for him to improve or to become more loving and gracious. Second, because God is a Trinity, we know that the Son of God was directly involved in everything that happened in the Old Testament. Jesus is not the more lenient version of the God of Israel. Third, the New Testament itself has references to the judgment that awaits those who continue in their rebellion against God.
To take one example, Paul comforts the Thessalonians by telling them that those who afflict them will not go unpunished: “They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might, when he comes on that day to be glorified in his saints and to be marveled at among all who have believed because our testimony to you was believed.” (2 Thessalonians 1:9-10)
And remember, most of what we know of hell in the New Testament comes from the words of Jesus, whose descriptions are disturbingly vivid. He speaks of hell as the place where “their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched” (Mark 9:48). It’s clear that the concept of God’s wrath and just judgment was important to Jesus and the New Testament writers.
God’s Wrath is Sobering and Strengthening
Needless to say, we cannot talk of God’s wrath lightly. The judgment that awaits those who are outside of Christ should sober us, particularly when we remember that it’s the same judgment we deserve. It is only by God’s grace in Christ that we are assured of “no condemnation” (Romans 8:1). These realities should lead to a life of overflowing gratitude, and they should compel us to share the good news that sinners can escape God’s wrath by hiding in the wrath-absorbing cross of Christ.
To unbelievers, God’s wrath will continue to seem harsh and outdated. But that doesn’t mean we should feel the need to apologize for it; this is, after all, one of God’s perfections. Instead, it should cause us to tremble, adding weight to our worship and urgency to our mission. The fearful prospect of God’s wrath also reminds us not to toy with sin or depart from Christ. Finally, the certainty of God’s wrath ensures that we don’t have to avenge ourselves, for God will one day punish all forms of evil fairly and decisively. This is why the saints will be able to rejoice at the destruction of God’s enemies. “Rejoice over her, O heaven, and you saints and apostles and prophets, for God has given judgment for you against her!” (Revelation 18:20)
The wrath of God gives the people of God confidence as they face opposition and persecution. Even this awe-inspiring attribute works for the good of those who belong to Christ. This is just one more reason to rejoice in the One whose wrath is dreadful, but who is at the same time our Father through Jesus Christ our Lord.
For more on God’s attributes, see Secret Church 4, “Who is God?“