I don’t often read through Christianity Today articles, but recently I was perusing the one page columns in the back (full disclosure- they are shorter, easier to read, and usually more interesting). When I was perusing, I ran across a column entitled “The Grace of Wrath” by Carolyn Arends (May, 2005, page 64). The title jumped out at me of being an article with some theology and thought involved, so I gave it a quick read and found an interesting conversation.
Arends’ main point is that we have frequently, and often mistakenly, created a bipolar God. We think of the God who is loving and gathers children in His arms, and then we think of the wrathful God punishing sinners with eternal damnation. Arends says, “I unconsciously developd a theolgy that intermittently had God the Son and God the Father in a good cop, bad cop routine, with the Holy Spirit stepping in as a sympathetic parole officer”. She finds a tension between two different pictures of God that we have developed. We don’t want to make God out to be the big downy soft cuddle bear in the sky (my words, not hers), so we remind ourselves that God is also a God who hates sin and must punish it.
Are those two things contradictory? Can a God of love also be a God of wrath? Arends says that God’s wrath is driven by God’s love. Up to here, I agree with her. God is not a hateful God who finds pleasure in arbitrarily punishing His creation. He’s not sitting in Heaven sending hurricanes, tornadoes, wildfires, or earthquakes just to mess with people. But what Arends says next I disagree with.
She says, “What if God’s wrath is not a caveat, qualification, or even a counterpoint to his love, but an expression of it? What if God grieves sin less because it offends his sensibilities, and more because he hates the way it distorts our perceptions and separates us from him?” She adds that God’s wrath is “his emphatic ‘NO!’ to anything that leads to our destruction.”
Arends has just managed to make God’s wrath man-centered. In other words, if I understand her correctly, God punishes people to show them that the path they are on is not in the best interest more than punishing sin because it transgresses His nature. God is more concerned with man than Himself. God’s ultimate purpose resides in the preservation of man rather than the preservation of His own glory.
I think Arends fails to distinguish a couple of very important things here. First, what is God’s wrath? God’s wrath is focused and reserved for those that have not repented of their sins. Does God correct those whom He loves? Absolutely. But she fails to distinguish what God’s wrath is here. For believers, they need not fear God’s wrath. Romans 8:1 says that there is no condemnation for those that are found in Christ. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t consequences for sin. But I wouldn’t classify that as being the wrath of God. I think that God allows us to suffer the consequences of sin, corrects and chastens us so that we realize that sin is detrimental to us.
Secondly, God’s wrath is not centered on man, but on the preservation of His own glory. It is God’s fury focused on rebellious sinners. God’s ultimate concern is not with pointing people on the right path, but rather with satisfying His love for His own glory. It sounds awfully self centered and prideful to us, but God must satisfy His own glory because He is worthy of it. To say that the primary function of God’s wrath is man-centered, misses the the point. That can be a secondary reason for God’s wrath, but not the primary.
There is grace in wrath shown to man on this side of eternity, because it is another opportunity for man to repent before the final judgment. But Arends fails to distinguish between God’s eternal wrath and the current punishing of sinners on this side of eternity. God can be providing more opportunities for repentance, but ultimately, it is to satisfy His own glory and His love for His own holiness. For God to be motivated by anything rather than his holiness would be idolatry simply because there is no higher cause or motivation for anything.
This article sounded more like dangerous speculation, rather than the result of an honest and deep study of God’s Word. This picture of God was born out of speculation rather than from His Word. God does correct believers to show us the dangerous nature of sin, but that isn’t God’s wrath, and ultimately, God’s wrath exists to satisfy God’s love for His own holiness. If we get this wrong, we get very close to getting the Gospel wrong. We must keep God in the center.