How can a loving God be a God of wrath?

[Updated 6/6/2020]

In Romans 1:18, Paul declares that, "The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness." But how can a loving God be a God of wrath? The answer is that God's wrath, like all his attributes, is an expression of his being (essence), which is love (1 John 4:8). This post explains.

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God, being in his essence love, loves us (God does what God is). And God finds the evil that hurts his beloved children to be intolerable, and so, in wrath, he judges that evil. What Paul is telling us in Romans is that God has already accomplished this judgment through the life, death, resurrection and ascension of his incarnate Son, Jesus Christ. In and through Jesus, God poured out his wrath on all sin, all evil. Through Jesus, God's wrath is ended - the enmity humanity created between itself and God through sin, is ended. Indeed, God has reconciled all humanity to himself in and through Jesus (2 Cor. 5:16-19). This is the objective sense of universal reconciliation.

However, there is also a subjective sense to this reconciliation. In love, God continues to extend to all people the freedom to choose to accept or to reject God's love for them - to live into, or refuse to live into that reconciliation. To accept his love means accepting God's forgiveness in Jesus Christ, and to admit that we have been sinful creatures in hateful opposition to God. That’s what it means to “accept Christ." We accept our sinfulness and estrangement from God and acknowledge that in and through Christ and his redemptive work we have been given reconciliation, transformation and eternal life in God as a free gift – and that we are free from wrath.

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 is to express his love toward humans in the forgiveness of the world’s sin through the work of Jesus.

Ephesians 1:3-8 is instructive about mankind’s situation in relationship to God. It shows that there is an essential and, we might say, “built in” wrath by God against sinfulness in man that he purposed to eliminate through a real reconciliation he initiates and brings to fruition in Christ (Ephesians 2:15-18; Colossians 1:19-23).

To say that this reconciliation is real is to acknowledge that repentance and reconciliation come about not through human words, emotion or even our desire to do God’s will, but through the actual Person of and saving work in Christ by God on our behalf. That saving work was carried out as wrath against sinfulness and evil, and love for us as persons. Because all humanity has been included in Christ, no person is the object of God's wrath - God has reconciled us all to himself.

Salvation is God’s rescue program in Christ –“who rescues us from the coming wrath” (1 Thessalonians 1:9-10). To repeat, human beings by nature are God’s enemies and this animosity 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 through sin 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 summary, when speaking of God’s wrath, it is important to consider how it is that God purposed to eliminate it. 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 through reconciliation, as it were.

God’s wrath against sin and sinfulness is presupposed in his sending Jesus Christ to personally 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 in humankind.

When we read the New Testament statement 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 man, but saves him from it for reconciliation and eternal life. God’s wrath is not intended to “condemn the world,” (John 3:17) but to condemn and destroy the power of sin in all its forms so that humans may have an eternal relationship of love with the triune God.

For a related post, click here.