Is the wrath of God a divine attribute?
How should we understand the wrath of God? That the entire Bible teaches that God’s perfect holiness and hatred of sin entails wrath and judgment on unrepentant sinners is perfectly clear. This is one of the clearest themes found throughout Scripture. There are many hundreds of passages on God’s anger and wrath, in both Testaments. Here are just a few of them:
Deuteronomy 9:7-8 Remember this and never forget how you provoked the LORD your God to anger in the desert. From the day you left Egypt until you arrived here, you have been rebellious against the LORD. At Horeb you aroused the Lord’s wrath so that he was angry enough to destroy you.
Psalm 7:11 God is a righteous judge,
a God who displays his wrath every day.
Psalm 79:5 How long, Lord? Will you be angry forever?
How long will your jealousy burn like fire?
Jeremiah 30:23-24 See, the storm of the LORD will burst out in wrath, a driving wind swirling down on the heads of the wicked. The fierce anger of the LORD will not turn back until he fully accomplishes the purposes of his heart. In days to come you will understand this.
Mark 3:5 He looked around at them in anger and, deeply distressed at their stubborn hearts, said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out, and his hand was completely restored.
Romans 1:18 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who hold the truth in unrighteousness;
Colossians 3:6 Because of these, the wrath of God is coming.
Revelation 15:7 Then one of the four living creatures gave to the seven angels seven golden bowls filled with the wrath of God, who lives for ever and ever.
Revelation 16:1 Then I heard a loud voice from the temple saying to the seven angels, “Go, pour out the seven bowls of God’s wrath on the earth.”
I have discussed this topic quite often in the past. See for example: billmuehlenberg.com/2011/03/06/the-wrath-of-god/
But here I want to discuss one particular aspect about this. Theologians have differed as to whether the wrath of God is an essential or fundamental attribute of God, or a relative or accidental attribute. That is, God’s love seems to be eternally essential to who God is. It is a moral attribute which is basic to who God is. But is this also true of his wrath?
Many theologians argue that his wrath is indeed an essential attribute, a function of who he always is. It is indeed one of the divine perfections. And even if it is not a direct attribute of God, it surely is part of God’s other attributes (his holiness, etc). But some theologians are not quite willing to say that wrath is an essential and intrinsic attribute of God.
A good part of the reason they argue this way is that God’s attributes must be eternal, since God is an eternal being. But wrath is only directed against sin, and sin is not eternal. Until mankind was created, and until the Fall took place, there was no sin, so there was no wrath directed against it. (Debates about God and his relationship to time will have to be discussed at another point.)
This long-standing debate can be rather complex, and it cannot here be resolved. So all I will do is offer some quotes from the various camps. So I begin with those who argue that wrath is indeed an attribute of God. Wayne Grudem in his Systematic Theology is one who takes this approach, listing it as an attribute of God. He writes:
It may surprise us to find how frequently the Bible talks about the wrath of God. Yet if God loves all that is right and good, and all that conforms to his moral character, then it should not be surprising that he would hate everything that is opposed to his moral character. God’s wrath directed against sin is therefore closely related to God’s holiness and justice. God’s wrath may be defined as follows: God’s wrath means that he intensely hates all sin.
In his classic book, The Attributes of God, A. W. Pink wrote:
The wrath of God is a perfection of the Divine character on which we need to meditate frequently. . . . Our readiness or our reluctance to meditate upon the wrath of God becomes a sure test of how our hearts really are affected toward Him. If we do not truly rejoice in God, for what He is in Himself, and that because of all the perfections which are eternally resident in Him, then how dwelleth the love of God in us? Each of us needs to be most prayerfully on guard against devising an image of God in our thoughts which is patterned after our own evil inclinations.
Martyn Lloyd-Jones, in a sermon on Ephesians 2, said this:
Wrath is nothing but a manifestation of indignation based upon justice. Indeed, we can go further and assert that the wrath of God, according to the scriptural teaching, is nothing but the other side of the love of God. It is the inevitable corollary of the rejection of the love of God. God is a God of love, but God is also and equally a God of justice and of righteousness; and if God’s love is spurned and rejected there remains nothing but the justice and the righteousness and the wrath of God.
In his important book Knowing God, J. I. Packer had this to say about God’s wrath:
Wrath, the Bible tells us, is an attribute of God. The modern habit throughout the Christian church is to play this subject down. Those who still believe in the wrath of God (not all do) say little about it; perhaps they do not think much about it. To an age which has unashamedly sold itself to the gods of greed, pride, sex, and self-will, the church mumbles on about God’s kindness, but says virtually nothing about His judgment. . . . One of the most striking things about the Bible is the vigour with which both Testaments emphasize the reality and terror of God’s wrath.
Some folks believe that talk about divine wrath just refers to the impersonal consequences of bad choices in a cause and effect universe, and should not be attributed to God himself. However, as Grant Osborne in his commentary on Romans responds:
“But his wrath against sin is too comprehensive in Scripture to allow such a reinterpretation. It is part of his very nature – the holiness of God demands wrath against the sinner and mercy toward the repentant. This could almost sum up the message of both testaments.” And people like Leon Morris in his several books of the atonement also challenge this view.
As noted, however, not all hold to this understanding. Some will argue that God’s wrath, which is a function of his reaction to sin, is a temporal aspect of his character, since sin itself is temporal. As a few examples of this, Robert Letham, in his recently released Systematic Theology makes a distinction between relative and absolute attributes. He says this:
Some attributes are related purely to sin: wrath is the prime example. Apart from human sin, God would not exercise wrath, for there would be nothing about which to be wrathful. However, once he had created humanity and Adam had disobeyed his law, with the consequent devastating effects on the human race and the cosmos itself, God – being holy and righteous – reacted with settled hostility to the emergence of rebellion in his prime creature. This was no change in God; it was the creature that had changed.
However, the relative attributes, as well as the absolute ones, are characteristics without which God would not be God. He is patient and merciful, even though patience and mercy entail other entities about which to be patient and merciful; if he were not so, he would not be who he is; he would not be God. Moreover, patience is an aspect of his eternity; since he transcends time, which he brought into existence, he sees the end from the beginning, and in relation to the creature he takes his time. Again, mercy is an outflow of his goodness. Since he is eternally good, in relation to the creatures he displays his goodness in showing mercy and grace to them. So, too, holiness and wrath, which we considered earlier, are the responses of God’s inherent goodness to the existence and the sin of the creature.
And D. A. Carson puts it this way in his valuable 2000 volume, The Difficult Doctrine of the Love of God:
Wrath, like love, includes emotion as a necessary component. Here again, if impassibility is defined in terms of the complete absence of all “passions,” not only will you fly in the face of biblical evidence, but you will tumble into fresh errors that touch the very holiness of God. The reason is that in itself, wrath, unlike love, is not one of the intrinsic perfections of God. Rather, it is a function of God’s holiness against sin. Where there is no sin, there is no wrath, but there will always be love in God. Where God in His holiness confronts His image-bearers in their rebellion, there must be wrath, or God is not the jealous God He claims to be, and His holiness is impugned. The price of diluting God’s wrath is diminishing God’s holiness.
This point is so important I must tease it out a little further. It is hard to read the pages of Scripture without perceiving that the wrath of God, however much it is a function of God’s holiness against sin, nevertheless has a powerful affective element in it. Thus to distance God too greatly from wrath on the ground of a misconceived form of impassibility soon casts shadows back onto his holiness.
Alternatively, this so-called wrath, depersonalized and de-emotionalized, is redefined as an anthropopathism that is actually talking about the impartial and inevitable impersonal effects of sin in a person or culture….
Finally, in their 1994 book, Unbounded Love, Clark Pinnock and Robert Brow – who as freewill theists are less theologically conservative than Letham and Carson – also reject the more traditional understanding. They write: “It is wrong to imagine divine wrath as an attribute of God like his mercy.” They note that the Reformed camp tends to run with this view, but they demur:
Love and wrath are not equally ultimate in the divine nature like two parallel attributes: instead, wrath is subordinate to love. . . . If God were wrath in the same way that he is love, God would be internally schizophrenic. The Trinity is a fellowship of love, not of anger. Wrath arises in relation to sinners who spurn divine love. Betrayal calls for a vigorous response; God’s wrath arises from injured love. But wrath must not be seen in isolation from concern for humanity.
Much more needs to be said on this, and I have only just introduced the debate here. Christians who have a high view of Scripture can and will take somewhat differing views on these matters. As is often the case, one’s overall theology will in part determine how believers line up here.
Moreover, it can be said that the views of Letham and Carson are really not radically different from the views of those I quoted before them. They simply try to add further nuance to the discussion (not that the others lack nuance). Those, like Clark and Brow, however, offer much more substantial disagreements.
And even though some may not care to admit it, it also must be said that one’s personality and/or temperament may well also influence how one decides such matters. That is, those who may be more black and white in their approach, and tend to emphasise things like justice and righteousness, may prefer the view that says wrath is indeed an attribute of God.
Those who may tend to be more keen on mercy and compassion will likely tend to favour the other viewpoint. Of course all of that is needed: concerns about truth and justice, and concerns about love and mercy. They all make up who God is and they all to some extent at least should characterise the Christian.
And then there will be some Christians who have much less interest in theology, who might say that the whole debate does not matter, or is just quibbling over semantics, and so on. But God is everything for the Christian, and to worship him aright means to know him aright. And that is what good theology seeks to do: help us better know and understand the God with whom we have to do.