Is a God Without Wrath a Good God? (3:6)
Among the many distortions of biblical truth in our world today, few are more egregious than that of Joel B. Green and Mark D. Baker in their horribly mis-titled and misleading book, “Recovering the Scandal of the Cross: Atonement in New Testament & Contemporary Contexts” (IVP, 2000). The focus of the book is their repudiation of Christ’s death on the cross as a penal substitutionary sacrifice. My primary concern in this lesson, however, is less with their view of the atonement (which is barely existent in the book) and more their denial of divine wrath that would warrant Christ’s death as a propitiatory offering (see Romans 3:25; 1 John 2:1-2).
I’m reluctant even to quote from the book, given the distorted and prejudicial language used to describe the wrath of God. But here are a few statements that should give you a sense of what they have in mind.
“Paul’s portrait of God is not that of an angry deity requiring mollification. Divine wrath is not an affective quality or ‘feeling’ on the part of God. Rather, it is a means of underscoring how seriously God takes sin. . . . Whatever else can be made of Paul’s understanding of the death of Jesus, his theology of the cross lacks any developed sense of divine retribution” (56).
They ridicule penal substitution as advocating the idea that Christ was punished “by execution on the cross so as to satisfy the rancor of God” (63). Penal substitution, they contend, is based in large measure on “the perceived necessity of placating an emotion-laden God ever on the verge of striking out against any who disobey his every will” (53). They portray the traditional view of divine wrath as God lashing out “in frustration or vengeance” against sinners (55).
Divine wrath, say Green and Baker, is not a divine property or essential attribute of God. Indeed, the “wrath to come” (1 Thess. 1:9-10; Col. 3:6) simply “refers to the climactic, end-time scene of judgment when those who prefer to worship idols rather than the living God receive the fruits of their own misplaced hopes and commitments” (54). If you are thinking carefully you will want to ask of them: Whose “judgment”? Indeed, “why” judgment? Receive from “whom”? What “fruits”?
There’s really nothing new in what Green and Baker say, other than they claim to say it as evangelical Christians (which is why it so egregious; were they theological liberals, one might expect such a perspective). New Testament scholar C. H. Dodd is well known for having argued that the concept of wrath is archaic and beneath the dignity of God. Paul’s terminology, said Dodd, refers to no more than “an inevitable process of cause and effect in a moral universe.” In other words, divine wrath is an impersonal force operative in a moral universe, not a personal attribute or disposition in the character of God.
This runs directly counter to the way in which the two Greek words for wrath (“thumos” and “orge”) are used in the New Testament. The former is said to be “of God” in Romans 2:8 and six times in the book of Revelation (14:10,19; 15:1,7; 16:1; 19:15). Here in Colossians 3:6, however, and in most other cases, the word “orge” is used and suggests the idea of a settled disposition arising out of God’s nature. It is specifically said to be "of God" in John 3:36 (on the lips of Jesus), as well as Rom. 1:18; Eph. 5:6; Col. 3:6; Rev. 19:15. We read of the "wrath of the Lamb" in Rev. 6:16 (see also Rev. 6:17; 11:18; 14:10; 16:19). In Rev. 19:15 John speaks of "the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty," where "fury" is a translation of “thumos” and "wrath" is a translation of “orge.”
Clearly, then, Dodd, Green, and Baker misunderstand divine wrath. It is not the loss of self-control or the irrational and capricious outburst of anger. Neither should it be conceived as a celestial bad temper or God lashing out at those who “rub him the wrong way.” 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.
J. I. Packer put it best by asking, “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,” 136-37).
Leon Morris, in his remarkable book, “The Apostolic Preaching of the Cross,” 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 situation 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” (185).
Why have I focused on the reality of divine wrath? Because it is on account of such things as “sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness” (Col. 3:5) that “the wrath of God is coming” (Col. 3:6; see also Eph. 5:5-6; 1 Thess. 4:3-6; 1 Cor. 6:9-10; Gal. 5:19-21).
The translation “is coming” is a bit misleading, for Paul may well have in mind a more timeless notion that wrath always “comes” on account of these things, not only in the future but throughout the course of human history. This is certainly the case in Romans 1:18ff. where Paul indicates that “the wrath of God is NOW VISIBLE in His abandonment of humanity to its chosen way of sin and all its consequences” (Moo, 96; emphasis mine). In other words, divine wrath is not simply reserved for a future day of judgment (although it will most certainly be revealed then in its consummate fury), but is actively present now as God “gives up” men and women to their chosen course of corruption and wicked behavior (see especially Romans 1:24, 26, 28).
Cranfield is surely correct in saying that “the wrath which is being revealed is no nightmare of an indiscriminate, uncontrolled, irrational fury, but the wrath of the holy and merciful God called forth by, and directed against” men’s ungodliness (sin is an attack on God’s majesty) and unrighteousness (sin is a violation of God’s will) (111).
Divine wrath is real. It is both operative now and will come in its full and final manifestation. Thanks be to God that “there is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1).
Praising God for the power of Propitiation!