Can a God without Wrath be Good?1
The notion of divine justice and wrath are not popular in certain sectors of the professing Christian world today. If nothing else, this betrays how weak in the minds of such folk is the doctrine of inspiration and the functional authority of Scripture. For if Scripture is indeed the Word of God written, infallible for all life and belief, then divine wrath must be embraced, as uncomfortable for some as that may be. Continue reading . . .
The notion of divine justice and wrath are not popular in certain sectors of the professing Christian world today. If nothing else, this betrays how weak in the minds of such folk is the doctrine of inspiration and the functional authority of Scripture. For if Scripture is indeed the Word of God written, infallible for all life and belief, then divine wrath must be embraced, as uncomfortable for some as that may be.
I have of late been reading extensively in the works of J. I. Packer. In his reflections on the atonement Packer speaks often of what has been called the retributive justice of God, or that which God's nature requires him to require of his creatures. Retributive justice is that in virtue of which God gives to each of us that which is our due. It is that in virtue of which God treats us according to our deserts. Retributive justice is thus somewhat synonymous with punishment. This is a necessary expression of God's reaction to sin and evil. Retributive justice is not something which God may or may not exercise, as is the case with mercy, love, and grace. Retributive justice, i.e., punishment for sin, is a matter of debt. It is something from which God cannot refrain doing lest he violate the rectitude and righteousness of his nature and will. Sin must be punished. It is a serious misunderstanding of Christianity and the nature of forgiveness to say that believers are those whose guilt is rescinded and whose sins are not punished. Our guilt and sin were fully imputed to our substitute, Jesus, who suffered the retributive justice in our stead.
As noted, some don’t like this. That God should relate to his creation on such terms is something they find morally objectionable. But Packer presses the point:
“Would a God who did not care about the difference between right and wrong be a good and admirable Being? Would a God who put no distinction between the beasts of history, the Hitlers and Stalins (if we dare use names), and his own saints, be morally praiseworthy and perfect? More indifference would be an imperfection in God, not a perfection. But not to judge the world would be to show moral indifference. The final proof that God is a perfect moral Being, not indifferent to questions of right and wrong, is the fact that he has committed himself to judge the world” (Knowing God, 143).
An excellent illustration of this principle is found in Psalm 103:10. Packer would define retributive justice as that in God's nature which requires him to deal with us according to our sins and reward us according to our iniquities. But in Psalm 103:10 we are told that God has not dealt “with us according to our sins,” nor had he repaid “us according to our iniquities.” Indeed, according to v. 12, we are told that "as far as the east is from the west, so far does he remove our transgressions from us." Does this mean, then, that God has simply ignored the righteous requirements of his nature, that he has dismissed or set aside the dictates of divine justice? Certainly not. All sin is punished, says Packer, either in the person of the sinner or in the person of his/her substitute. God's retributive justice was satisfied for us in the person of Christ, who endured the full measure of punishment which the justice and righteousness of God required. This is the core truth in what is known as penal substitution.
That attribute in God's character that expresses itself in retributive justice is also called wrath. As noted earlier, some contend that the notion of wrath is beneath God’s dignity and wholly “out of character” with what we know him to be. One might point to the work of C. H. Dodd in this regard who envisioned wrath as no more than an inevitable process of cause and effect in a moral universe. Wrath may well be ordained and controlled by God, concedes Dodd, but is clearly no part of him, as are love, mercy, kindness, etc.
Clearly, Dodd and others misunderstand divine wrath. It is not the loss of self-control or a celestial bad temper or as Packer says, “an outburst of ‘seeing red’ which is partly if not wholly irrational” (Knowing God, 150). Divine wrath is righteous antagonism toward all that is unholy. It is the revulsion of God's character to that which is a violation of God's will. Indeed, one may speak of divine wrath as a function of divine love. For God's wrath is his love for holiness and truth and justice. It is because God passionately loves purity and peace and perfection that he reacts angrily toward anything and anyone who defiles them. Packer 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” (Knowing God, 151).
Leon Morris, to whose defense of penal substitutionary atonement Packer frequently appeals, agrees:
"Then, too, unless we give a real content to the wrath of God, unless we hold that men really deserve to have God visit upon them the painful consequences of their wrongdoing, we empty God's forgiveness of its meaning. For if there is no ill desert, God ought to overlook sin. We can think of forgiveness as something real only when we hold that sin has betrayed us into a situation where we deserve to have God inflict upon us the most serious consequences, and that is upon such a situtation that God's grace supervenes. When the logic of the situation demands that He should take action against the sinner, and He yet takes action for him, then and then alone can we speak of grace. But there is no room for grace if there is no suggestion of dire consequences merited by sin” (The Apostolic Preaching of the Cross, 185).
Praise be to God for the penal substitutionary atoning sacrifice of Jesus on behalf and in the place of sinners like you and me. Without it we face an eternity of well-deserved wrath. But through it we gain unending joy and friendship with God!