Reflections on Wrath

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I’m sure you would agree that we live in an age in which the notion of divine wrath has taken a distant backseat to talk of love, grace, and forgiveness. We don’t hear much of the language of our Christian forebears in today’s sermons. When we read of God reserving “infinite tortures for suffering” (Cyprian) or of hell’s eternal fire being designed “to torture the impious” (Augustine), we feel uncomfortable. We don’t hear much preaching about the “tormenting fires” of hell where the unrepentant will be “tortured without end” (Anselm) or of “a fiery oven” where sinners will be “tortured within by supreme distress and tribulation” (Luther). While Calvin is quoted a great deal in our circles, it’s not very often that we quote him on the “torments and tortures” of hell.

There may be more than one reason that we avoid such language, but one reason is surely that we are almost embarrassed to publicise divine wrath to a hyper-tolerant culture. Churches are far more focused on praise than punishment. But, even if we think that earlier generations overemphasised divine wrath, we need to be careful of overcorrecting. It is an undeniable fact that the Bible speaks of divine wrath.

Jesus warned his hearers to fear God who can destroy body and soul in hell (Matthew 10:28). He warned that those who do not trust in him for eternal life will “perish” under “the wrath of God” (John 3:16, 36). Paul stated quite plainly that those who do not obey the gospel “will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might” (2 Thessalonians 1:9). Similar language can be found from cover to cover in both Testaments.

One of the reasons that some Christians are squeamish of speaking about divine wrath is because they think it will somehow make God unattractive. We tend to think that we are more likely to win people by appealing to love, not wrath. After all, is it not “God’s kindness” that “is meant to lead you to repentance” (Romans 2:4)?

However, we must recognise that diminishing or eliminating divine wrath does not make God more attractive. It makes him immoral! We live in a world of evil and injustice. How attractive is a God who does not care about the evils and injustices of abortion, racism, child abuse, gender-based violence, genocide, and slavery? Do we not long for these wrongs to be righted? Do we not cry for an end to those who abuse their power? Is it not necessary for a God of love to display wrath against sin?

Psalm 30 presents God’s anger as cause for praise. “Sing praises to the LORD, O you his saints, and give thanks to his holy name” (v. 4). David gives two reasons that we should sing praises to Yahweh and give thanks to his holy name: first, because “his anger is but for a moment” and, second, because “his favour is for a lifetime” (v. 5). Yahweh is worthy of our praise because he is a God who is angry with, and promises to express anger toward, the wicked. But he is also worthy of our praise because that anger is momentary, while his favour lasts “for a lifetime.”

We would do well to remember that David was writing these words to “saints”—to God’s people. It is for God’s people that anger lasts for a moment because favour lasts for a lifetime. Perhaps you have felt the displeasure of God against your sin in recent days. Perhaps you are weighed down with guilt and shame over sinful struggles you face. God’s anger against your sin is a reality, but be encouraged that, for his saints, his favour always outlasts his anger. Turn to Jesus Christ for forgiveness and cleansing and experience his favour afresh. Be encouraged in the gospel even as you feel the weight of your sin.

Stuart