Simply put, what most people talk about today when discussing God’s love has little if anything to do with the real love of God. That is, it is often a sentimental, humanistic understanding, which bears little or no likeness to the biblical portrait of his love.
And I am not just referring to secularists here. Plenty of Christians have a wholly inadequate understanding of what divine love is all about. And this faulty understanding of his love especially has to do with his other attributes, including his holiness and justice. Because God is a holy and just God, he must always be implacably opposed to sin and evil.
Indeed, his just wrath against evil is fully part of his love. Strip God of his holy wrath and you strip God of his holy love. Both belong together, and to set one against the other is to do injustice both to God and to his word. This is a theme I have often written about, but it looks like I need to keep writing on it. For older treatments of this topic, see here: billmuehlenberg.com/2008/08/12/on-biblical-love/
But the topic keeps being mangled, not just by individual Christians, but by entire denominations as well. Liberal churches and denominations are trashing the biblical doctrine of divine love because they are jettisoning the biblical doctrine of divine wrath.
Consider a famous contemporary Christian hymn here: “In Christ Alone,” written in 2001 by Stuart Townend and Keith Getty. The lyrics are solidly biblical:
In Christ alone my hope is found,
He is my light, my strength, my song;
this Cornerstone, this solid Ground,
firm through the fiercest drought and storm.
What heights of love, what depths of peace,
when fears are stilled, when strivings cease!
My Comforter, my All in All,
here in the love of Christ I stand.
In Christ alone! who took on flesh
Fulness of God in helpless babe!
This gift of love and righteousness
Scorned by the ones he came to save:
Till on that cross as Jesus died,
The wrath of God was satisfied –
For every sin on Him was laid;
Here in the death of Christ I live.
There in the ground His body lay
Light of the world by darkness slain:
Then bursting forth in glorious Day
Up from the grave he rose again!
And as He stands in victory
Sin’s curse has lost its grip on me,
For I am His and He is mine –
Bought with the precious blood of Christ.
No guilt in life, no fear in death,
This is the power of Christ in me;
From life’s first cry to final breath.
Jesus commands my destiny.
No power of hell, no scheme of man,
Can ever pluck me from His hand;
Till He returns or calls me home,
Here in the power of Christ I’ll stand.
So why do I mention this hymn here? Because one American denomination has decided it has to go. The Presbyterian Church USA has said this hymn is quite unacceptable because it dares to say this: “Till on that cross as Jesus died, the wrath of God was satisfied”.
Never mind that this is exactly what the Bible teaches. The biblical term “propitiation” has to do with appeasing or satisfying – in this case satisfying the just requirements of God’s righteous hatred of sin. This was done when God poured out his wrath on his son so that we do not have to face his just wrath if we come to Christ in faith and repentance. Passages like Romans 3:25; Hebrews 9:5; 1 John 2:2; and 1 John 4:10 speak to this truth.
But for this liberal PC denomination such “offensive” truths have to go. We cannot speak of his wrath – only his ‘love’. But as I said, to strip God of his wrath is also to strip God of his love. The two are part and parcel of who God is.
As mentioned, however, I have written about this often already. So let me just refer readers to additional reading for those who want to take it further. Here then is a brief guide to some recommended reading on God’s love:
Carson, D. A., The Difficult Doctrine of the Love of God. Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway Books, 2000.
Carson, D. A., Love in Hard Places. Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway Books, 2002.
Lewis, C.S., The Four Loves. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1960.
McIntyre, John, On the Love of God. London: Collins, 1962.
Morris, Leon, Testaments of Love: A Study of Love in the Bible. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1981.
Newlands, G.M., Theology of the Love of God. London: Collins, 1980.
Thoennes, K. Erik, Godly Jealousy: A Theology of Intolerant Love. Christian Focus, 2005.
Vanhoozer, Kevin, ed., Nothing Greater, Nothing Better: Theological Essays on the Love of God. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001.
So let me conclude with a few quotes from just one chapter from one of the above books. I refer to the important essay by Tony Lane, “The Wrath of God as an Aspect of the Love of God” in Vanhoozer’s volume. He begins:
“A love that does not contain hatred of evil is not the love of which the Bible speaks. It is most fitting therefore that a volume on God’s love should include an essay on the wrath of God. This is necessary, not because we need to balance God’s wrath with his love, as rival attributes, but because God’s love itself implies his wrath. Without his wrath God is simply not loving in the sense that the Bible portrays his love.”
As to the Old Testament evidence, he cites J.A. Baird: “Wherever in the Old Testament one finds a reference to the love of God, his wrath is always in the background, either explicitly or implicitly, and we neglect this element to the impoverishment of the Hebrew concept of love.” Says Lane, “This wrath is God’s displeasure and his venting of it, the opposite of his good pleasure. Because of his holiness, righteousness, and justice, God is by nature intolerant of sin and impurity.”
The New Testament offers more of the same. For example, consider Jesus. Lane again cites Baird: “The Synoptics record Jesus saying well over twice as much about the wrath of God as he ever did about his love.” So what exactly is the wrath of God then? Drawing on the work of Leon Morris, Lane says this:
“It is God’s personal, vigorous opposition both to evil and to evil people. This is a steady, unrelenting antagonism that arises from God’s very nature, his holiness. It is God’s revulsion to evil and all that opposes him, his displeasure at it and the venting of that displeasure. It is his passionate resistance to every will that is set against him.”
While many assume that God’s love and wrath are opposed to one another, this is not the case: “As has often been observed, ‘the opposite of love is not wrath but indifference.’ It is the thesis of this essay that God’s wrath should be seen as an aspect of his love, as a consequence of his love.”
Much more of importance of course can be found in his essay. All I have done here is hopefully whet your appetite for more. The second link below offers you just that opportunity if you don’t have the Vanhoozer volume. But in closing let me share something I have often used before, from D. A. Carson’s The Difficult Doctrine of the Love of God:
“Both God’s love and God’s wrath are ratcheted up in the move from the old covenant to the new, from the Old Testament to the New. These themes barrel along through redemptive history, unresolved, until they come to a resounding climax – at the cross. Do you wish to see God’s love? Look at the cross. Do you wish to see God’s wrath? Look at the cross.”