God’s Love: What About Wrath?

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This piece was conceived on Valentine’s Day, February 14, 2014. As to the origin of this popular lovers’ day, the
Catholic Encyclopedianotes,

The popular customs associated with Saint Valentine’s Day undoubtedly had their origin in a conventional belief generally received in England and France during the Middle Ages, that on 14 February, i.e. half way through the second month of the year, the birds began to pair. [1]

One need not be a practitioner of this love feast, serious or superstitious, to observe the power of love’s grip of the human heart. Monarchs have been known to give up their kingdoms for the sake of love. In 1936, King Edward VIII startled his British subjects and the world when he abdicated his throne to be free to marry a divorcee, the American Wallis Simpson. In his radio speech to a worldwide audience, the king declared:

You all know the reasons which have impelled me to renounce the throne. But I want you to understand that in making up my mind I did not forget the country or the empire, which, as Prince of Wales and lately as King, I have for twenty-five years tried to serve.

But you must believe me when I tell you that I have found it impossible to carry the heavy burden of responsibility and to discharge my duties as King as I would wish to do without the help and support of the woman I love.

Demoted as Duke of Windsor, he and his wife were shunned by the British royals. Only when he died in 1972 was the Duke honoured again by his own country. A framed message in the Duke’s own handwriting was left for his beloved:

My friend, with thee to live alone,

Methinks were better than to own

A crown, a sceptre and a throne.

Powerful love, a love to the death! But this is the most of the extent of human love, made sacred in the vow “until death shall part us.” Indeed, death will part all human lovers.

God’s Love in the Death of Christ

There is another death that seals an eternal bond of love. The atoning death of Christ secures those in union with Him will never be separated from the love of God.

There is no attribute of God more favored by the religious than that of His love. Yet few divine attributes are as misunderstood. Don Carson writes of this in his
The Difficult Doctrine of the Love of God:

If people believe in God at all today, the overwhelming majority hold that this God is a loving being. But that is what makes the task of the Christian witness so daunting. For this widely disseminated belief in the love of God is set with increasing frequency in some matrix other than biblical theology. The result is that when informed Christians talk about the love of God, they mean something very different from what is meant in the surrounding culture. Worse, neither side may perceive that this is the case.[2]

The confusion on this attribute is most pronounced in its connection to God’s wrath. To the average mind, there is a total disconnect between love and wrath. Wrath conjures up the picture of a man ventilating his temper out of control. But this has no semblance with divine wrath. God’s wrath is a function of His justice and holiness – in His perfect moral purity, He is essentially and necessarily opposed to all that is impure and sinful.
You who are of purer eyes than to see evil and cannot look at wrong(Habakkuk 1:13). As such, His wrath is universal and fixed wherever there is sin.
For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men (Rom 1:18). Because God’s wrath is out of His justice, its only way of satisfaction is by a just penalty on sinners. Had it been all wrath and justice, God could have punished all sinners without any violation of His holiness.

This is where God’s love occupies its most indispensable place. God’s love taking on the demands of His wrath through the death of Christ is called in the Scriptures,

In but a few versions, this word is missing in many English translations of the Bible. In its place, the word
expiation is preferred. Expiation denotes the removal of sin. The problem is that it is only half of the significance of
propitiation. Left out is the more significant half – the removal of God’s wrath. But reflecting the rejection of the concept of God’s wrath, whether popular or scholarly, modern construction will only go so far as the removing of sin. But in the process, they have missed out on the astonishing beauty of God’s love.

The connection of propitiation to God’s love is explicit in 1 John 4:10,

In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.

With a statement like this, it should be impossible to speak of God’s love in its biblical context without its connection to what Christ did in dying as an act to remove God’s wrath – a propitiation.

Christ’s Death as turning point

I shall argue that the most magnificent statement of the Scripture on this subject is Romans 3:25, 26 which describes the redemption of sinners through the death of Christ,

whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.

The death of Christ as propitiation is presented here as a turning point in the exercise of God’s wrath. Like any turning point in history, we speak of the period
before that, and
since that, turning point event; as we may refer to before 9-11, and since 9-11. Of all the turning points in history, there is none more massive in its effect than the Cross of Christ, understood as a propitiation.

Before the death of Christ, God’s wrath was hanging upon all sinners, and in justice, God could have poured it out in judgment. But He did not, and the explanation is His forbearance –
He passed over former sins. But with the propitiatory death of Christ, and
since, God could demonstrate His righteousness
at the present time. But instead of that righteousness demanding punishment against sinners, and here is the marvellous conclusion, God can be
just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus!

God can now fully exercise His justice. But instead of sinners being punished, those in faith-union with Christ are acquitted, without any injustice, because Christ has taken the wrath of God fully satisfied in the cross. This is propitiation – the most wonderful provision of God’s love for sinners!

In Christ’s atoning death, the Last Day judgment of wrath has already been decided for his people. The wrath to have been poured out on sinners on the Judgment Day was poured upon Christ on the Cross. This leaves for God’s people no more wrath to mete out (Romans 5:9, 10; Eph. 2:3ff; 1Thes. 1:10; 5:9, 10 ).

This passage, had it been really appreciated, should deserve equal footing with the most popular John 3:16. As New Testament scholar Herman Ridderbos explains,

Christ is the means of propitiation appointed by God to the manifestation of his deferred righteousness. In Christ’s death, the righteousness of God thus reveals itself in the demanding and vindicatory sense of the word. His blood as atoning blood covers the sin which God until now had passed over, when as yet he kept back the judgment. All that men wish to detract from the real character of Christ’s propitiatory death signifies a devaluation of the language of Romans 3:25, 26, which is unmistakable in its clarity. [3]

God’s Love magnified by Propitiation

Only a man convicted of his wrath-deserving sinfulness will appreciate the depth of God’s love in sending His Son as propitiation. Yes, let us continue to sense God’s love in His benevolent provisions of daily bread. Let us be thankful for His merciful sustenance of our lives. But a sinner’s greatest need is how to face the just wrath of God. For this, God, out of His gracious love, sent His Son as a propitiatory sacrifice for sinners.

The continuing pre-occupation today with God’s love that excludes His wrath only impoverishes. The enriching contemplation on God’s love has the backdrop of justice and wrath. Reformed theologian John Murray puts it excellently:

Because of the compatibility of love and wrath as co-existing, the wrath-bearing of the Son of God, the vicarious infliction of the wrath of God against those whom the Father invincibly loved, is not only comprehensible, but belongs to the essence of the doctrine that Christ bore our sins as the supreme manifestation of the Father’s love… The propitiation which God made his own Son is the provision of the Father’s love, to the end that holiness may be vindicated and its demand satisfied. Thus, and only thus, could the purpose of his love be realized in a way compatible with, and to the glory of the manifold perfections of his character.[4]

How poor is that appeal to God’s love that erodes into a health-and-wealth gospel. Or even that which is reduced to a formula decision that ends up with a man-based pronouncement of assurance of going to heaven.

God’s love is at its most resplendent in the darkest hour of the Cross in the Son’s cry of dereliction:
My God! My God! why have you forsaken me? It is a cry whose mystery is only illuminated by the concept of propitiation. The sinner’s Substitute was drinking to the last dregs the cup of God’s judgment on behalf of His people.

That is why when a believer wants an assurance of God’s love to him today, there is no better time and place to point to than that event. To say that one is assured of God’s love because of material provision reflects the shallowness of our generation. Is God’s love shortened when our pocket is not full? Or some see it in physical sustenance, or perhaps in having a nice family. But is God’s love failing with our failure in health? Or a misery in the family? There is still no better way to see the
present loveof God than in the
past provision of propitiation. I am sure it goes back to the apostle Paul:

God demonstrates His own love towards us [ present tense ] in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. [ past tense ] – Romans 5:8

  1. [1] New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia (CD-ROM v. 2.1): entry on “Saint Valentine’s Day”
  2. [2] Don Carson,
    The Difficult Doctrine of the Love of God (Crossway Books): 9-10
  3. [3] Herman Ridderbos,
    Paul: An Outline of His Theology:189
  4. [4] John Murray,
    Collected Writings II. 145, 146

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