Saturday, June 27, 2009

Building a Case for the Wrath of God

Yesterday I blogged about Steve Chalke’s essay in the book The Atonement Debate (Zondervan, 2008). In response, I argued that, whereas Chalke wants to denounce the idea of the wrath of God altogether—at least in the sense that it means God is angry at sin and sinners—the Bible would seem to teach otherwise. I quoted a number of texts, without commentary, to show this point.

As I said then, I am not eager to have an angry God. If God is angry at sin and sinners then he is angry at me. I am personally implicated in the wrath of God and thus I do not approach the study of his wrath and its consequences as if I were studying a bug under a microscope. In other words, I do not approach this study impersonally. However, having said that, my personal comfort is not the sine qua non of the matter; fidelity to the Bible is. If God has revealed to us in his Word that he is angry at sin and sinners, then we must accept this fact and learn to understand in the light of the rest of Scripture.

To be fair to Chalke, he did try to argue that there is little point in debating particular texts because the overall flow of the Bible moves away from the idea that God is angry at sin and needs to be appeased. But as I mentioned yesterday, he simply asserts this without support and that will not due for me. I must see his ideas in the actual words of Scripture, not in platitudes, however sensical those platitudes may seem. The Word of God endures forever and thus the Word of God must be the source of our ideas about God.

If I were to mount a thorough defense of what I think the Bible teaches about the anger of God toward sin and sinners, I would proceed as follows. First, I would carefully define the biblical words for anger and try to remove misunderstandings that exist on the basis of flawed definitions.

Second, I would try to show that righteous anger must arise in the face of injustice and that this fact is displayed on the face of the earth, many times over, every single day. For instance, how would you react if a father whose daughter had just been raped, said to the rapist, “What you did wasn’t right but I forgive you and choose to forget what you’ve done; would you please come over and join us for dinner?” If word of this got out, it would saturate the news cycle and outrage the world because sometimes the absence, not the presence, of anger is the injustice. I am not saying that there is no place for forgiveness and restoration—there most certainly is. But that place is found through, not around, righteous anger.

Righteous anger is a necessary response to injustice and the reason we experience it, and rightly so, is because we are made in the image of God. In other words, the righteous anger that rises up in us is an echo of the righteous anger that rises up in God. The difference is that God’s standard of justice is high and perfect, and he sees every single infraction against it at every moment, at all times. This infinitely vast and high perspective implies, among other things, that God must be angry at sin and sinners, for if he is not, he is no better than the man who invites the rapist over for dinner. Again, we must understand that at times the absence, not the presence, of anger is the injustice.

Third, I would spend the majority of my time showing that God in his anger is not like us in ours. I think a good deal of the objections against the anger of God stem from the false premise that God in his anger is like humans in theirs. But he is not. God is perfectly in control of himself. He never “looses it.” God is perfectly wise and therefore utilizes anger according to that wisdom. God is infinitely good and holy and righteous and therefore dispenses punishment and discipline in a way that displays his character. God is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and so his anger must always be comprehended in the light of the totality of his being.

Indeed, in order to talk about the wrath of God in a way that’s true to the Bible and helpful to people, we must always hold it in balance and tension with the love and mercy of God. Ephesians 2:3-5 says this: “…among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved…” Deuteronomy 7:9-11, which I quoted yesterday, says this: “Know therefore that the Lord your God is God, the faithful God who keeps covenant and steadfast love with those who love him and keep his commandments, to a thousand generations, and repays to their face those who hate him, by destroying them. He will not be slack with one who hates him. He will repay him to his face. You shall therefore be careful to do the commandment and the statutes and the rules that I command you today.”

Beloved, our God is a God of immense and immeasurable love and mercy, and he is also a God of terrible and overwhelming wrath. When we emphasize his wrath to the exclusion of his love or his love to the exclusion of his wrath, we obscure who he has revealed himself to be and we expose ourselves and others to grave danger. Thus, we must always remember to hold these two aspects of God in balance and tension: when we talk about wrath we must remember mercy, and when we talk about mercy we must remember wrath. As Paul said in Romans 11:22, “Note then the kindness and severity of your God.”

Fourth, in light of all of the above, I would move, text by text, from Genesis to Revelation and show the fact that God is, and always has been, angry at sin and sinners, and that his justice demands satisfaction if he is to forgive sin. In other words, I would show that Chalke is wrong when he tries to argue that the overall flow of the Bible is away from the idea that God is angry at sin and needs to be appeased.

Again, for the third time in two days, I am not eager for an angry God. I am, however, eager to be true to the Word of God. I am eager to deal with God as he is, not as I want him to be or as the culture wants him to be or as the people in the pews want him to be. It is always best for us to learn to grapple with God as he is, even if that is very unpleasant at times.

Finally, I would round out my comments by showing how the wrath of God actually evokes worship in the hearts of those who love him. I know this sounds odd, and perhaps even wrong, but there are a couple of texts in Revelation that show this to be the case. In fact, so that I don’t leave you scratching your head, I think I will sketch this out in a blog entry tomorrow.

It would take a lot of time to lay out this case, and I do not have that time right now. But I wanted to explain to you how I would proceed to develop a biblical case for the wrath of God because I want to help guide you on your way. You can tread the path I just sketched. But whether or not you do, I pray that you will join me in the effort to build your ideas about God on the basis of the Word of God. We all do this imperfectly, but we must never stop straining toward the same.

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