Understanding God's wrath and love

This post continues the series exploring the book Forsaken (The Trinity and the Cross, and Why it Matters) by Tom McCall. For other posts in the series, click a number: 1235678.

We'll now look at McCall's discussion of God's wrath in which he asks the question, "Did the death of Jesus make it possible for God to love us?" (p49). His answer is no, because the question presupposes the mistaken belief that God did not love us before Jesus died for us on the cross. The fact of the matter, revealed to us by Jesus, is that God has always loved us. And it was out of love and for love that God the Father sent his Son to become one of us, and as our representative to die and rise for us in order that we might enjoy full fellowship with God forever.

God's wrath

But what about the many scriptures that speak of God's wrath toward sinners? How do we reconcile God's wrath with his love? Does God have a "dark side" that is opposed to his love and mercy?

We can't deal with this apparent contradiction by sweeping aside God's wrath as though it were non-existent or unimportant. Both the Old and New Testaments speak frequently of God's wrath. In the NT, Paul tells us of a "wrath of God [that] is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness" (Romans 1:18). McCall notes that this divine wrath...
...is directed against "wickedness"; it is opposed to the evil affections and behaviors of human sinners as they violate each other and pillage God's creation. It also stands in diametric opposition to "godlessness," for it is directly pointed at all creaturely rejections of their Creator and Sustainer" (p50).
In short, "God opposes our opposition to his purposes and will" for his creation, including all humans (see p51). Moreover, he notes that...
God's wrath is not detached and impersonal; nor is it the polar opposite to his love and mercy. It is not the selfish frustration or temper of someone who is self-obsessed and irate with anyone who gets in the way of his own self-actualization or self-fulfillment. Instead, it is the wrath of someone who loves deeply and powerfully--it is the wrath that says, "What are you doing to yourself? How dare you do such a thing?" (p53). 
Thus we see God's wrath as an expression of, not the negation of, his love. However, wrath and love may still seem contradictory to us. Part of the problem, according to McCall is an inadequate understanding of God's love.

God's love

As McCall states, "All too often we think of the love of God in inadequately trinitarian ways [i.e. in non-trinitarian ways], and we very often reduce the love of God to mere sentiment" (p56). In that regard, we forget that the love the Father has for us is the love expressed in Jesus, through the Spirit. God, who is three in person, is of one being, with one mind toward us. But his one-minded love toward us is his perfect, divine love, which must not be reduced to flawed human expressions of love. McCall notes two important points about divine love:

1. God's love is a holy love. "It cannot be reduced to sentimentality or indulgence; it does not ignore or brush away or indulge our sinfulness. Instead God expresses his love in a way pointed directly at our sin" (p57). And God's goal in this is to remove forever the sin which destroys us--the object of his love.

2. God's love is the love of the triune life. When Scripture declares that God is love, it is making a statement not merely about an attribute which God possesses, but what God in his triune nature actually is. Jesus makes this clear in his prayer in John 17, where God's love is shown to be the essence of "the intratrinitarian life" (p58).
God's love is not arbitrary or accidental or extrinsic to him--as if he could either have or lack love. It is not something added to him; he does not first exist and then develop into someone who does loving things. The triune God does not merely decide to be loving, nor does he only act in loving ways. No, when we affirm with Scripture that "God is love" we are making the most profound and penetrating of all theological statements. We are talking about who God is; we are referring in the intratrinitarian life in which the Father Son and Spirit share openness, trust, shalom, life and love with one another in the greatest way possible. (p58).
As McCall notes, Thomas F. Torrance refers to this love as the "Communion of Love," which is the "reciprocal loving which is identical to the One Being of God...God loves us with the very same love with which he loves himself" (see pp58, 59 which quote Torrance's book, The Christian Doctrine of God: One Being, Three persons; p165).

McCall then concludes his discussion of God wrath and love by noting that "in neither the Old Testament nor the New Testament do we see the love of God and the wrath of God as polar opposites" (p6); God is always toward us who he is in his own being, namely, "the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin" but not leaving "the guilty unpunished" (Ex 34:6-7). For "the Lord is good, and his love endures forever" (e.g., Ps 100:5; 106:1; 107:1; 118:1) (see pp 60-61).

For a related post, click here.


  1. Anonymous6/18/2012

    Hi Ted,

    I would suggest that the statement, 'Paul tells us of a "wrath of God [that] is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness" (Romans 1:18).' needs to be revisited. (Actually, all of Romans 1:18-32 needs to be revisited by Christian thinkers.) This passage, so often attributed to Paul, is actually a statement made by Paul's opponent. When this realization hits, the discussion of God's wrath vastly changes.

    All the best!

    J. Richard Parker

  2. Hi Richard,
    Yes, Douglas Campbell (in The Deliverance of God) advances the exegetical theory that in the first part of Romans, Paul is quoting a person who advances a position that Paul then dismantles in the rest of his letter. I think this is a cogent theory, but one being widely debated. We'll have to see how it holds up over time. In any case, what Paul and other authors of Scripture have to say about the wrath of God as fundamentally an expression of his love (not something in opposition to his love) is the key point.

  3. Anonymous6/18/2012

    Hi Ted,

    Thank you for mentioning Douglas Campbell. He has written splendidly about this subject, and I recommend his writings to everyone who is struggling to find God as truly love. Also, the GCI website has several interviews of Douglas Campbell that are sure thought provoking.

    I also want to mention that I have come to view wrath as not part of God's love. Instead, I feel that wrath is an integral part of law. Once the law goes away (in favor of Jesus Christ) so does wrath.

    With this said, I do appreciate you presenting various aspects of this and other aspects of the faith. It is important for us to wrestle with these things as we grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

    All the best!

    J. Richard Parker


    Is it possible to be saved without having your sins forgiven? Was Saul saved by faith alone before his sins were forgiven?

    If Saul was saved on the road to Damascus, then he was saved without having his sins forgiven.

    Saul believed in Jesus on the road Damascus, but his sins were forgiven three days later in Damascus
    Act 9:1-19......9 And he was three days without sight, and neither ate nor drank....

    Saul sins were forgiven in Damascus, three days later, not on the road to Damascus.
    Acts 22:1-16.....10 And I said, 'What shall I do Lord?' And the Lord said to me, 'Get up and go into Damascus, and there you will be told of all that has been appointed for you to do.'.......16 Now why do you delay? Get up and be baptized, and wash away your sins,calling on His name!

    Saul was not saved by faith only. Saul was saved by believing and being baptized in water.

    Jesus did not establish faith only salvation on the road to Damascus. Jesus confirmed what He already had said "He who has believed and has been baptized shall be saved"... (Mark 16:16)

    You cannot be saved unless your sins have been forgiven.

    In order to support the doctrine of faith only men have offered many reasons why the Scriptures cannot be trusted.
    1. The Bible is not the inerrant word of God, it has many errors and contradictions.
    2. You have to be a Greek scholar to understand the Bible. If you understand the original Greek language, then you would know water baptism is not essential for forgiveness of sins.
    3. You need to use extra-Biblical writings to understand the plan of salvation.
    4. The Bible has been mistranslated, therefore men are saved by faith only and not the way it is presented in the Bible.

    If God is not smart enough to give men an accurate translation of His plan for salvation and Christian living, then why would anyone trust in Him for salvation or for anything else.

    God has given us His plan of salvation in many translations, in different languages. You do not have to know Greek.You do not have to have a Greek dictionary. You do have to be Greek. If men had to be able to read and understand original Greek to understand the Bible, then all Bibles would be in Greek.


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