One of the most uncomfortable Christian doctrines to discuss in any social setting is the wrath of God. It doesn’t matter if you are in a small group, Sunday morning sermon, or a coffee shop, when you talk about God’s wrath, the tension in the room automatically increases.
Last night, I was leading a small group of teenagers in a discussion about the exclusivity of the gospel. The only way to enter and enjoy God’s presence is through the person and work of Jesus Christ (John 14:6; 1 Tim. 2:5). In the process of that discussion, I asked them to think about all of their friends who are outside of Christ. Then, I asked them to funnel the exclusivity of the gospel through the lens of friendship. My hope was that the wrath of God against those outside of Christ would not casually pass over them. My hope was that they would see the hopelessness that even their kindest friends are facing outside of Christ. Ultimately, my hope was and is that they would be ignited to leverage their friendships for the sake of the gospel and the eternal joy of their lost friends.
Have you ever considered God’s wrath in relation to loved ones in your life who you know are outside of Christ? Doing this doesn’t change the truth and reality of God’s wrath, but it does help us pause to consider a true biblical definition of God’s wrath. Wrath, most commonly associated with raging anger, has absolutely zero positive connotations in human relations.
So, how can something as unstable as anger, which Jesus equates to murder, be found in a perfectly holy God?
In John Stott’s commentary on Romans, he writes very helpfully on the relationship between human anger and God’s wrath:
If we are to preserve the balance of Scripture, our definition of God’s anger must avoid opposite extremes. On the one hand, there are those who see it as no different from sinful human anger. On the other, there are those who declare that the very notion of anger as a personal attribute or attitude of God must be abandoned.
Human anger, although there is such a thing as righteous indignation, is mostly very unrighteous. It is an irrational and uncontrollable emotion, containing much vanity, animosity, malice, and the desire for revenge. It should go without saying that God’s anger is absolutely free of all such poisonous ingredients.
The wrath of God, then, is almost totally different from human anger. It does not mean that God loses his temper, flies into a rage, or is ever malicious, spiteful or vindictive. The alternative to ‘wrath’ is not ‘love’ but ‘neutrality’ in the moral conflict. And God is not neutral. On the contrary, his wrath is his holy hostility to evil, his refusal to condone it or come to terms with it, his just judgment upon it.
[Stott, Message to the Romans, pp. 71-72]
Read that last paragraph again. Crucial to an understanding of God’s wrath is knowing that the alternative is not love, but neutrality. The good news of God’s wrath is that he is not neutral when it comes to sin, evil, and suffering. He is a sovereign conquerer of these things. His wrath is poured out against them. And the most radically mind-blowing news I’ve ever heard is that the way God conquers sin, death, evil, and suffering is by bearing his righteous wrath himself.
Mathew Gilbert (B.A. Boyce College) is Associate Pastor for Children and Preschool at The Church at Trace Crossing in Tupelo, MS. He is the author of Come to the Well: 50 Meditations to Fuel Your Joy in God (Westbow Press, 2016). He is an M.Div student at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Mathew is married to his high school sweetheart, Erica. Mathew and Erica live in Tupelo with their son, Jude. You can follow him on Twitter @mat_gilbert.