God’s wrath comes about because God’s holiness and love have been violated by the sinfulness of man. Human beings who live their lives apart from God are really antagonistic toward and hateful of his way. This means people living in such estrangement are actually the enemies of God. Since mankind assaults everything good and pure that God is and stands for, he cannot but be in opposition to man’s way. This holy and loving opposition to sinfulness in every form is called “God’s wrath.”
God is sinless – is perfect holy Being by nature. If he did not oppose sinfulness in man, he would not be God, by inherent definition. If he was not wrathful and warring against sin, God would then, in effect, be saying that sinfulness is not evil and can be tolerated. That would be a lie, because sinfulness is evil. But God cannot lie and be untrue to his essential Being, which is holy and loving. If God were to tolerate sin in not having a sustained wrath against it, it would mean he accepted sinfulness as a legitimate assault on his holiness (because God is holy) and that he finds human suffering caused by evil to be acceptable. But God is supremely holy and just – and he is pure Love. Thus, his nature and Being cannot tolerate sinfulness and that which violates who and what he is. Therefore, it is impossible for a just God not to have “wrath” toward sin. Paul explains God’s wrath as a just judgment – a necessary one that flows out of man’s sinfulness against a holy God (Romans 1:18-26).
However, God has already taken the actions necessary in order to end the enmity between himself and man, which man’s sinfulness has caused. These actions flow out of his love, which is the essence of his being (1 John 4:8). God expresses his love in that he continues to hold up his creatures’ freedom to choose for or against him even while they sin against him and hate his way, and thus his very Being. God has supremely expressed this love by sending his Son, Jesus Christ – true God of true God – to pay the penalty of sin and to end sinfulness (1 John 4:9-10).
The fact that God himself has, at great cost to himself, taken the necessary steps to have man’s sins be forgiven and blotted out in the death of Jesus, shows that mankind has been under his wrath. To accept God’s forgiveness in Jesus Christ is to admit that we have been sinful creatures in hateful opposition to God. That’s what it means to “accept” Christ. We accept our sinfulness and estrangement from God and acknowledge our faith that through Christ and his redemptive work we have been given reconciliation, transformation and eternal life in God as a free gift. Ephesians 2:1-10 describes the human journey from being the objects of God’s wrath to receiving salvation by his grace.
God’s purpose from the beginning to express his love toward humans in the forgiveness of the world’s sin through the work of Jesus (Ephesians 1:3-8) is instructive about mankind’s situation in relationship to God. It shows that there is an essential and, we might say, “built in” wrath by God against sinfulness in man that he purposed to eliminate through a real reconciliation he initiates and brings to fruition in Christ (Ephesians 2:15b-18; Colossians 1:19-23). To say this reconciliation is real is to acknowledge that repentance and reconciliation come about not through human words, emotion or even our desire to do God’s will, but through the actual Person of and saving work in Christ by God on our behalf. That saving work was carried out as “loving wrath” against sinfulness and for us as persons. Those who are “in Christ” are no longer objects of wrath, but dwell in the peace of God.
Human beings who are “in Christ” (Romans 8:9-11) are saved from wrath through Jesus’ redemptive work and in the indwelling Holy Spirit, who transforms us. They are now at peace with and reconciled to God. This reconciliation involves a turning to God and a turning away from everything that is an idol in human life and the world (1 John 2:15-17).
Salvation is God’s rescue program in Christ –“who rescues us from the coming wrath” (1 Thessalonians 1:9-10). To repeat, human beings by nature are God’s enemies and this animosity causes a necessary and spontaneous countermeasure from a holy and loving God – his wrath. But from the beginning, God has purposed out of his love to end the human-caused wrath through sin by the saving work of Christ. It is through God’s love that we are reconciled to him in his own saving work in the death and life of his Son (Romans 5:9-10; John 3:16).
In summary, when speaking of “God’s wrath” it is important to consider how it is that God purposed to eliminate it. We thank God that God’s wrath disappears when sin is conquered and destroyed. We have assurance in the promise of his peace toward us because he has once and for all dealt with sin in Christ. God has reconciled us to himself in the saving work of his Son, thus ending his wrath, as it were. God’s “wrath” against sin and sinfulness is presupposed in his sending his Son, Jesus Christ, to personally win the final victory over this enemy of God. If God did not war against all forms of sinfulness – if he had no “wrath” against it – he would have seen no need to send his Son in human form as Jesus (John 1:1, 14) to destroy this enemy of his very Being and his purpose in man.
When we read the New Testament statement that God so loved the world that he sent his Son – and that whoever believes in him will not perish (John 3:16) – we are to understand from this very act that God is “wrathful” against sin. But in his war against sinfulness, God does not condemn sinful man, but saves him from it for reconciliation and eternal life. God’s “wrath” is not intended to “condemn the world,” but to condemn and destroy the power of sin in all its forms so that humans may have an eternal relationship of love with him.