I was reading up on house churches when I stumbled across this post from Keith Giles (whom I am not familiar with, but who has written about “organic churches”). He argues that wrath is not one of the attributes of God.
That’s clearly wrong.
Wrath is definitely one of the attributes of God.
If God shows wrath at any time, then it’s an attribute you can predicate on God. It might not be as prominent an attribute as love, but it is an attribute.
However, what Giles actually means is that he thinks wrath is not part of God’s nature—and by nature, Giles means “enduring character trait.” Instead, he argues, God’s nature is love, not wrath:
“First of all, whereas we have several verses in the Scripture that affirm that God IS love, and that love is one of God’s most enduring character traits, we have zero verses of Scripture that say that God IS wrath.”
Of course, Giles knows the Bible has plenty of verses which speak about God’s wrath. What does he do with those verses? Giles says the Biblical writers got it wrong:
However, I think it’s more than possible that those verses are projections and assumptions the writers had about God that were later corrected by Jesus and the Apostles.
It’s too bad that Giles denies Biblical inerrancy here.
Worse, the Apostles did not correct those assumptions about God’s wrath. On the contrary, they affirmed them.
For example, John, in his Gospel, warned people that if they did not believe in Him for eternal life, God’s wrath would be on them:
He who believes in the Son has everlasting life; and he who does not believe the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him (John 3:36).
Doesn’t this verse contradict the idea that God’s wrath is a non-enduring attribute? After all, there are billions of people in the world today who do not believe. What, then, do they have? God’s wrath. There have been millions of people in the past who do not believe. What do they have? God’s wrath. That’s a lot of wrath, shown to a lot of people, over a long period of time!
And yet, Giles quotes someone named Steve Kline as saying:
The conception among most Christians is that God is angry with us and that if we don’t repent then He will pour out His wrath on us…Yes, we have sinned horribly against God. We denied him…For that, we must repent if we want to enter the kingdom of God, the kingdom of heaven, eternal life.
I think Christians might have the conception that God is angry with us because of what John taught in John 3:36.
Here’s another example of an Apostle teaching about God’s wrath—Paul writing to the Romans:
For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, because what may be known of God is manifest in them, for God has shown it to them (Rom 1:18-19).
Paul is writing after the cross. And yet God is currently showing wrath against sin, Paul says.
Judging from John and Paul, we can conclude that God is angry with sinners, no?
I admit the Bible does not say “God is wrath” the way it says “God is love.” However, it does say God is jealous and avenging and shows wrath to His enemies:
God is jealous, and the Lord avenges;
The Lord avenges and is furious.
The Lord will take vengeance on His adversaries,
And He reserves wrath for His enemies;
The Lord is slow to anger and great in power,
And will not at all acquit the wicked (Nahum 1:2-3a).
More to the point, the Bible might not say God is wrath, but it does say that God is holy:
But Joshua said to the people, “You cannot serve the Lord, for He is a holy God. He is a jealous God; He will not forgive your transgressions nor your sins” (Josh 24:19).
Holiness hates sin. It always hates sin.
God is love.
But God is also holy.
He is both.
And God shows love and wrath together.
People can struggle with that and find different ways of reconciling the two.
Giles has chosen to downplay wrath and emphasize love. I’m sure you could find theologians who have gone the other way. Both positions, it seems to me, are unbalanced. So how should you understand God’s wrath and love?
Martin Luther took a different approach.
Giles (along with other theologians) tries to reconcile God’s love and wrath by focusing the discussion on God’s being. That is, Giles emphasizes God’s nature, attributes, and enduring characteristics. By contrast, Luther tried to reconcile the two at the level of God’s preaching.
That’s right. Luther completely changed the conversation (as he often did). Instead of talking about different attributes of God’s being, Luther distinguished between two words from God. Sometimes he described it as two sermons from God, namely, Law and Gospel.
The Law (which, for Luther, includes any command in the OT or NT) preaches the wrath of God against sin and sinners. The Law commands you to do what’s right and condemns you for doing what’s wrong. In other words, the Law expresses God’s wrath.
By contrast, the Gospel preaches the love of God for sinners and forgiveness and justification for believers. The Gospel expresses God’s love.
Both sermons are true.
Both sermons are needed.
But they are needed at different times, to accomplish different purposes. Here is how Luther explains it:
It is therefore urgent that these two words, different in kind, be rightly and properly distinguished. Where that is not done, neither the Law nor the Gospel can be understood, and consciences must perish in blindness and error. For the Law has its terminus, defining how far it is to go and what it is to achieve, namely, to terrify the impenitent with the wrath and displeasure of God and drive them to Christ. Likewise the Gospel has its unique office and function: to preach the forgiveness of sins to troubled consciences. Let doctrine then not be falsified, either by mingling these two into one, or by mistaking the one for the other. For the Law and the Gospel are indeed both God’s word; but they are not the same kind of doctrine (Luther, “Distinction,” p. 154).
I need to think long and hard about Luther’s argument here, but I love how Luther takes the issue to another level (e.g., from God’s being to God’s preaching).
I think Luther would say that, by denying God’s wrath, Giles is making the mistake of shutting his ears to the preaching of God (and actually denying those words are from God at all!).
However, to some extent, I sympathize with Giles. If all you’ve ever heard in church is God’s wrath, I can understand why you’d be so hungry for God’s love that you wouldn’t want to hear about anything else. But if that’s true of your experience, the answer isn’t to deny that wrath is an attribute of God. The answer is to see that wrath is not the only thing that God has to say. If you preach the whole counsel of God, then you have to preach that God loves the world so much He sent Jesus to die on a cross for your sins and rose from the dead for your justification so that you can be given eternal life, through faith in Christ. God’s love for you in Christ is not His only word, but it is meant to be His last and highest and saving word.