The Bible tells us that “God is love” (1 John 4:8). He chooses to do good, to help human beings. But the Bible also speaks of God’s wrath, his anger. How can a being of pure love also have anger?
There is no contradiction between love and anger. Actually, we should expect that love (a desire to do good) would also include anger or opposition against anything that hurts. God is consistent in his love, so he is opposed to anything that works against his love. Anything that opposes God’s love is sin. God is against sin – he wants to counteract it, eventually eliminate it. Because God loves humanity, he dislikes sin. However, “dislikes” is too mild. God has strong feelings against sin. He hates sin, because it is an enemy of his love. This is what the Bible means by the wrath of God.
God loves human beings, even sinners (that’s the only kind of human there is). Even when we were sinners, God sent his Son to die for us, to save us from our sins (Romans 5:8). We conclude that God loves the people, but hates (is implacably opposed to) the sin that hurts them. If God were not against everything that is against his creation and against a right relationship with him, God would not be loving. God would not be for us if he were not against whatever was against us.
The Bible occasionally says that God is angry at people. This is a figure of speech. God’s desire is not that he wants to inflict pain on the people, but that he wants them to change their ways and to escape the pain that sin causes. His anger lasts only as long as they insist on sinning. This shows that God is not angry at the people for who they are, but only because of what they are doing. He is not angry at them – he is angry at their behavior. God wants a good outcome for the people, not a bad one. He did not create them for destruction, but for redemption and salvation (John 3:17). In contrast, God’s anger at sin is permanent. God will never change his mind about the evil of evil and come to say, well, it really wasn’t so bad, it really wasn’t evil, but partially good or purely good.
God’s wrath comes about because God’s holiness and love have been violated by human sinfulness. Human beings who live their lives apart from God are antagonistic toward his way. People living in such estrangement are acting as enemies of God. Since humanity assaults everything good and pure that God is and stands for, God must oppose the way of sin. This holy and loving opposition to sinfulness in every form is called “God’s wrath.”
God is sinless – he is perfect holy Being by nature. If he did not oppose sinfulness in humanity, he would not be good. If he was not wrathful and warring against sin, if he did not care, 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 hostility to it, it would mean that he accepted sinfulness as legitimate and that he finds human suffering caused by evil to be acceptable.
But God is supremely righteous – and he is pure love. Thus, his nature and Being cannot tolerate sinfulness and anything that violates who and what he is and who he created us to be. Therefore, it is impossible for a just God not to have “wrath” toward sin. Paul explains God’s wrath as a just judgment that flows out of sinfulness against a holy God (Romans 1:18-26).
End of the enmity
However, God has already taken the actions necessary in order to end the enmity between humanity and himself. These actions flow out of his love, which is the essence of his being (1 John 4:8). In love, God allows his creatures to choose for or against him. He even allows them to hate him, although he opposes such a choice because it hurts the people he loves. In effect, he says “no” to their “no.” In saying “no” to our “no,” he reinforces his “yes” to us in Jesus Christ. God has supremely expressed this love by sending his Son, Jesus Christ, to pay the penalty of sin and to end sinfulness (1 John 4:9-10) and reconcile us back to himself.
God has, at great cost to himself, taken all the necessary steps to have our sins be forgiven and blotted out. Jesus died for us, in our place. The fact that his death was necessary for our forgiveness shows the seriousness of our sin and guilt, and shows the results that sin would otherwise have for us. God hates the sin that causes death.
When we accept God’s forgiveness in Jesus Christ, we admit that we have been sinful creatures in opposition to God. That’s what it means to “accept” Christ as our Savior. We accept that we were sinful and in need of a Savior. We accept that we were alienated and in need of reconciliation. We acknowledge that through Christ and his redemptive work we have been given reconciliation, transformation and eternal life in God as a free gift. We repent of our “no” to God and thank him for his “yes” to us in Jesus Christ. 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 was to express his love toward humans by forgiving the world’s sin through the work of Jesus (Ephesians 1:3-8). This is instructive about humanity’s situation in relationship to God. Whatever “wrath” God had, he also planned to resolve, even before the world was created (Revelation 13:8). He initiated from the foundations of the world a real reconciliation through Christ (Ephesians 2:15-18; Colossians 1:19-23). This reconciliation comes about not through human desires or efforts, but through the Person of and saving work of Christ on our behalf. That saving work was carried out as “loving wrath” against sinfulness and for us as persons. People who are “in Christ” are no longer objects of wrath, but live in peace with God.
In Christ, human beings are saved from wrath through his redemptive work and the indwelling Holy Spirit, who transforms us. God has reconciled us to himself (2 Corinthians 5:18); he harbors no desire to punish us. We respond and receive his forgiveness and new life in right relationship to him by turning to God and turning away from everything that is an idol in human life (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 have become, in our very natures, enemies of God, and this animosity and distrust of God 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 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 effect, even before it started, God planned to eliminate his own wrath against humanity. It is a hypothetical construct, since the solution was provided before the problem arose. God’s wrath is not like human anger. Human language does not have a word for this sort of temporary-and-already-resolved opposition against humans who are opposed to God. They deserve punishment, but God’s desire is not to punish but to rescue them from the pain that their sin causes.
The word wrath can help us understand how strongly God hates sin, but our understanding of the word must always include the facts that
- God’s anger is targeted toward sin, not the people in themselves,
- God has already acted to end whatever wrath he had toward humans, and
- his anger against sin will never end, because sin hurts the people he loves.
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. God’s wrath, then, is not against his love. Rather, his wrath serves his love. His wrath is a means to bring about his loving purposes for all.
While human wrath rarely if ever accomplishes loving purposes to even a small degree, we cannot project upon God our human understanding and experience of human wrath. Doing so is to commit idolatry, to think of God as if God were a human creature. The wrath of human beings does not work the righteousness of God, says James 1:20. God’s wrath will not last forever, but his steadfast love will.
Here are some key Scripture passages that demonstrate this relationship between God’s love and his wrath unlike what we experience between fallen human beings.
- James 1:20: “Human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires.”
- Hosea 11:9; 14:4: “I will not carry out my fierce anger, nor will I devastate Ephraim again. For I am God, and not a man—the Holy One among you. I will not come against their cities…. I will heal their waywardness and love them freely, for my anger has turned away from them.”
- Micah 7:18: “Who is a God like you, who pardons sin and forgives the transgression of the remnant of his inheritance? You do not stay angry forever but delight to show mercy.”
- Nehemiah 9:17: “But you are a forgiving God, gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love.”
- Isaiah 54:8: “‘In a surge of anger I hid my face from you for a moment, but with everlasting kindness I will have compassion on you,’ says the Lord your Redeemer.”
- Lamentations 3:31-33, 39: “No one is cast off by the Lord forever. Though he brings grief, he will show compassion, so great is his unfailing love. For he does not willingly bring affliction or grief to anyone…. Why should the living complain when punished for their sins?”
- Ezekiel 18:23: “Do I take any pleasure in the death of the wicked? declares the Sovereign Lord. Rather, am I not pleased when they turn from their ways and live?”
- Joel 2:13: “Rend your heart and not your garments. Return to the Lord your God, for he is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love, and he relents from sending calamity.”
- Jonah 4:2: “He prayed to the Lord, ‘Isn’t this what I said, Lord, when I was still at home? That is what I tried to forestall by fleeing to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity.’”
- 2 Peter 3:9: “The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.”
- 1 John 4:18: “There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears [punishment] is not made perfect in love.”
God’s wrath against sin and his elimination of wrath against humans are simultaneously presupposed in his sending his Son, Jesus Christ, to 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 for humanity, to live eternally in right relationship with him. God’s holiness is committed to making us holy. His righteousness aims to make things right, make all things new. His judgments, his revelation of what leads to life and what leads to death, are to avoid condemnation, the consequences of refusing to submit to his judgments fulfilled in Jesus Christ.
When we read 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 humans, but saves them from sin 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.