In a July-August Grace in Focus Magazine article (see here), I answered a long list of ten questions asked by a reader. In one of my answers (#9) I suggested that repentance is not necessary to be born again, but “it is necessary to escape temporal wrath in this life” (Grace in Focus Magazine, July-August 2018, p. 8).
A reader sent me a nice letter. He said he agrees that repentance is not necessary to be born again, but he disagrees that it is necessary to escape temporal wrath in this life. He writes, “I know of no Scripture that mention’s God wrath toward a believer. God is a loving, forgiving Father who may find it expedient to chasten a believer caught up in sin…But chastening is born out of love, not out of wrath.”
Great point. Let’s talk about it.
First, in my magazine article I did not specify that I was talking about believers. In my opinion God does pour His temporal wrath on believers and unbelievers. However, I did not mean to differentiate in that article.
Think of the book of Jonah, which the Lord cites in Matt 12:41. The Ninevites were marked for destruction. Forty days left. Then they would be wiped out. Every man would die, for sure. Maybe everyone. But Jonah’s message of judgment was met by repentance of every person and even all the animals (Jonah 3:1-10). Because they repented, God relented and did not destroy all the Ninevites (Jonah 3:10). Now surely most if not all of the Ninevites were unbelievers. But the point is, their repentance extended their lives.
The nations which Israel dispossessed were destroyed because their sins were filled up. If they had repented before it was too late, then they would not have been destroyed.
Second, the word wrath is associated with God’s temporal judgment all through the Bible, occurring two-hundred times (see, for example, Exod 15:7; 22:24; 32:10; Lev 10:6; Num 25:11; Deut 9:7, 8, 22; 29:23; Josh 22:20; 2 Chron 19:2; 24:18; Jer 10:10; 44:8; Hos 13:11; Zeph 1:18; Matt 3:7; Luke 3:7; Rom 1:18; Rom 13:4; Col 3:6; 1 Thess 1:10; 5:9; Rev 6:16-17; 19:15). A number of those refer to born-again people.
God’s wrath fell on Israel on many occasions and it fell on both believers and unbelievers alike. There is no hint that the believers were spared.
God’s wrath fell on Israel in AD 70 when Jerusalem and the temple were destroyed and over one million Jews were killed. While most of those killed were unbelievers, surely some of those who died were believers.
Remember the occasion when even Miriam and Aaron rebelled against their brother, Moses? What happened? God’s wrath fell on Miriam, clearly a believer, and she had leprosy for a week (Numbers 12:1-16). Verse 9 specifically says, “So the anger of the Lord was aroused against them [Aaron and Miriam], and He departed.” The very next verse tells us that “Miriam became leprous, as white as snow.” She came down with leprosy because the Lord was angry with her.
Aaron’s two oldest sons, Nadab and Abihu, died because God’s wrath fell on them as they offered up strange fire (Lev 10:1-11, esp. v 6). It is highly likely that Nadab and Abihu were believers.
Paul says that human government is appointed by God “to execute wrath on him who practices evil” (Rom 13:4). Clearly Paul is not restricting that wrath to unbelievers who break the law. Even believers who break the law will experience the wrath of God delivered via human government.
The coming seven-year Tribulation will be an outpouring of God’s wrath on mankind (1 Thess 1:10; 5:9; Rev 6:16-17; 19:15). Believers and unbelievers will both suffer (though, of course, Church-Age believers will not because we will be raptured before the Tribulation as 1 Thess 4:17 and 5:9 say).
While the word wrath is not used in Jude 21, it is implied: “keep yourselves in the love of God, looking for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ unto eternal life.” The believer who avoids the immoral actions of false teachers will keep himself in God’s love as he looks for the soon return of Christ and fullness of eternal life. But the believer who is duped by false teachers will experience God’s wrath (cf. 2 Pet 2:18-22).
Yes, God loves believers. Yes, we will forever be His. But that does not mean that we are immune from His wrath.
Finally, let me clarify regarding repentance and wrath. A believer who is in fellowship with God does not need to repent. He simply needs to walk in the light of God’s Word (1 John 1:7) and confess the sins which God brings to his attention (1 John 1:9). Only believers who stray from the Lord in the spiritual far country need to repent (Luke 15:11-32).
When the prodigal son was unrepentant in the far country he experienced famine, hunger, pain, loss of his money, and betrayal (no one gave him anything, though he had evidently been giving lots of parties). My letter writing friend says, “And at no time did the father pursue the son and visit wrath upon him. The boy’s own acts and decisions brought great discomfort and suffering upon him, but they were not the result of the father’s visitation of wrath.”
The text of Luke 15:11-32 does not say whether the famine and want and pain were merely a natural result of the boy’s foolish actions or whether these things were also an outpouring of God’s wrath upon the boy. In light of the Old Testament teaching on God’s wrath, it seems more likely that the Lord intended His audience to understanding the suffering of the prodigal to be a result of God’s wrath upon him.
I should mention that God rarely allows believers in fellowship with Him to experience His wrath. The only time is when they are caught up in corporate judgment. When God judged Israel, believers were impacted by the wrath. If God ever pours His wrath on the United States (or, maybe I should say, in the times when God has poured His wrath upon the U.S.), then believers will experience (or have experienced) that wrath too.
But, aside from corporate judgment, believers in fellowship with God escape His wrath. Yet if we are in the spiritual far country, we can expect to experience His wrath.
Now if someone wants to call the calamities which prodigal believers experience the natural consequences of our sins and not God’s wrath, I don’t think that is a capital offense. But I think it is more accurate to say that God sovereignly sends calamities in the lives of prodigal believers to cause us to repent, and the Bible calls those calamities the wrath of God.
Remember that the author of Hebrews warned born-again people, “‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay,’ says the Lord. And again, ‘The Lord will judge His people.’ It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Heb 10:31). Amen.