The Bible is full of about 20 major themes and another 50–70 smaller themes you must grasp to make sense of the whole Bible. We are walking through the biggies on the podcast, and when it comes to explaining how each of them develop from Genesis to Revelation, I don’t know of anyone who does it better than Dr. Don Carson. On select Fridays we release a little longer episode than normal where we call up Dr. Carson, he takes up one theme, and explains it.
Six times we have covered one of the major themes of the Bible with him and you can find all those episode, just search the word “Carson” in the APJ app. He joins us again today over the phone, fruit of our partnership with our friends at The Gospel Coalition. Carson is the co-founder and president of The Gospel Coalition, and also the editor of the NIV Zondervan Study Bible, which is the study Bible version of what we’re doing in these podcasts.
There is one theme, if you get wrong, it will make an utter mess of the entire Bible, and it’s the theme of God’s wrath on sin. Sin is the theme we looked at last time in episode 858. Today we turn to look at what wrath is — and what it isn’t. I called Dr. Carson at his home office and here’s what he said.
I suppose there are few theological topics that are more unacceptable to the contemporary, Western world than the theme of the wrath of God. Yet the fact remains that the wrath of God is spoken of something like 600 times directly or indirectly in the Old Testament alone, quite apart from New Testament usages. And that is in addition to passages where the expression — “the wrath of God” — or anything analogous is not actually found, but the narrative carries the same theme.
For example, in Genesis 3, the occasion of the first human sin, there is no mention of the wrath of God. But God promises judgment in chapter 2 if they eat the forbidden fruit (Genesis 2:16–17). The judgment begins to be carried out in chapter 3 and it is carried out further. This is a narrative telling of the wrath of God. And there are many passages of that order. And it is really important early on to establish, then, that the judgments that fall on the human race are not simply the automatic but entirely impersonal consequences of bad behavior. If you do bad things, bad stuff happens to you in some sort of mechanistic way — karma or something of that order. But rather, that there is personal offense against the personal God who made us, and his reaction against us is to bring judgment, and that is a function of his judicial wrath.
Already we see, then, that wrath is not bad temper. It is not as though he is losing it. But it is a function of his holiness, and if he were entirely unwrathful in that understanding of wrath, then there would be no judgment and no consequence for sin of any sort. And that doesn’t make God out to be more attractive or more holy. It makes him out to be morally indifferent. That is already established in seed form in the opening chapters of Genesis. There are so many, many biblical, theological themes that are beginning to appear in Genesis 1, 2, and 3, that are not developed and articulated until much later.
“A wrath-less god does not make him more attractive. It makes him morally indifferent.”
And then you find the same development in the Genesis storyline. The judgment of the flood is a function of the wrath of God and the way even the Abrahamic family, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and the patriarchs and so on, faced various judgments from God because of their failures, inconsistencies, and sins along with the mercy of God, that God preserves and then brings them down to Egypt and makes sure they have enough food and then so on.
That pattern continues all the way, for example, to the exile when first the northern tribes, about 721 B.C., and then the southern two tribes — Judah and Simeon — in 586 B.C. Their leadership is carried off into exile — the former to the Assyrian empire, the latter to the Babylonian empire. And yet texts make it clear again and again and again that this doesn’t happen because the Babylonians are too strong for God. It is not as if the regional superpower controls events.
For example, in the prophecy of Ezekiel we see how in a vision in chapters 8 and following, God judicially abandons the temple. There is so much idolatry and so much sin going on that the glory of God leaves the temple and sits on the mobile throne chariot. The throne chariot abandons the city, crosses the Kidron Valley, rises to the top of the Mount of Olives, and waits for the city to be destroyed. All of that is a symbol-laden way of saying that, if Jerusalem falls, it falls not because the Babylonians are such a mighty power that even God can’t stop them, but that the Babylonians win in the last analysis simply because God in his wrath — though the word is rarely used in that connection — is judicially frowning upon Judah and Jerusalem. He is bringing the promised judgment that he had been threatening them with for generations. It has finally come.
The same reality is at the heart of the opening chapters of Romans. Before you get to the great atonement passage in Romans 3:21–26, you read, “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them” (Romans 1:18–19). And the next two and a half chapters are essentially the justification of that conclusion.
The wrath of God is in the process of being revealed in God’s abandonment of people. He gives them over to the sinful desires of their own hearts. And the concluding list of Old Testament quotations is startling in its vision of human conduct in Romans 3:10–18. “As it is written, None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned away; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one,” and so forth. All of this is part of the description, the unpacking of what it means in 1:18 to say: The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people.
In other words, salvation necessarily demands that God’s wrath somehow be set aside. Salvation consists, in part, it is not the whole part, but it consists, in part, in being saved from the righteous wrath of God. And that is where propitiation lies. So now we are into an array of terms connected with the atonement. We see, again and again, how different biblical themes bring us back to the cross. In this case the wrath of God brings us to the cross in that it is one of the ways the Bible speaks of God’s formidable holiness arrayed against our sinfulness and rebellion.
“God’s holiness, God’s sovereignty, God’s love, and the other attributes that are part of his eternal being are always in play. And God’s wrath is a function of those attributes when faced with our sin.”
Somehow that righteous wrath must be turned aside or we are utterly undone. We are lost. We face judgment. And that is why the cross is understood in the New Testament not only to cancel sin, but to propitiate God. God becomes both the author and the object of propitiation. He plans things such that Christ bears our sin and guilt and cancels it. But at the same time by cancelling our sin Christ satisfies God’s sense of justice, and his wrath is turned aside. He becomes propitious toward us, favorable toward us, by the plan and decree and purposes of God in redemption.
Within this framework, this pattern of understanding what salvation is all about recurs again and again and again, sometimes using the “wrath” word and sometimes not. For example, Ephesians 2:3 says that we are all by nature children of wrath. We are all under the condemnation of God for God’s gracious salvation brought to us. And the ultimate descriptions of hell are, likewise, a reflection of God’s judicial determination to punish sin. Thus, we read, for example, regarding the devil, “The devil who had deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and sulfur where the beast and the false prophet were, and they will be tormented day and night forever and ever” (Revelation 20:10). All of this is a function of God’s wrath even though the word “wrath” isn’t really used there.
Now it is worth pausing for a moment to think about some of the ways in which wrath relates to other attributes of God. God’s love and God’s wrath are not symmetrical. The Bible does say that God is love. It never says that God is wrath. The closest it gets to it is saying that God is a consuming fire, which fire burns both to purify us and to punish. But that consuming fire is itself a function of his holiness. What is really important when you think about both love and wrath in the nature of God is that the doctrine of impassibility, so-called, needs to be rightly understood.
The majority of Christians across the whole history of the church have affirmed the impassability of God. But sometimes that doctrine has been misunderstood. God becomes impassible, that is, not subject to emotions, borne along by his reason, his knowledge, his sovereignty, but not by his emotions, thus, there is a danger of thinking God in almost a stoic sense. But that just won’t do. It won’t do for either his love or his wrath.
He is the God who yearns for his people (James 4:5), who loves them, who cries, “Turn, turn, why will you die? The Lord has no pleasure in the death of the wicked” (see Ezekiel 33:11). “God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son” (John 3:16). There are so many, many, many verses that emphasize the love of God.
And not a few that emphasize his wrath as a function of his holiness. Sometimes the judgment that is poured out on his people in the Old Testament is said to continue until his wrath is turned aside, until his judgment is satisfied.
But what we must see, it seems to me, in both cases, is that God doesn’t use a contemporary expression: “fall in love.” He is not wrathful because he loses it, as if he blows up just because his patience runs out in some purely emotional way. If God is acting in love, it is in the context of all of his perfections. He acts in holiness and love and in truth, not because he sets holiness over against love and it is a sort of zero-sum game — a little more love today means a little less holiness; a little more holiness tomorrow means a little less love. It is not a zero-sum game. God always acts in conjunction with all of his attributes.
Thus, although he does love us, never does he fall in love with us, because that suggests he is caught up in a web of emotion that controls him apart from what he might think or his judgment or his sovereignty or his justice might demand. “He can’t help himself.” In that sense he is impassible. It is not as if he is controlled by his emotions, but it is not like he is emotionless either. In that sense, impassibility can be misunderstood.
Similarly with wrath, God doesn’t sort of lose his temper. It is a judicial function of his holiness against the backdrop of our sinfulness. If there were no sin in the universe, there would never ever be any expression of God’s wrath. In that sense, God’s wrath is unlike his love; it is contingent. God is love regardless of what else there is in the universe, including our sin. But God’s wrath is contingent upon either the sin of the fallen angels or our sin. What is not contingent is God’s holiness. God’s holiness, God’s sovereignty, God’s love, and the other attributes that are part of his eternal being are always in play. And God’s wrath is a function of those attributes when faced with our sin.
“The Bible does say that God IS love. It never says that God IS wrath.”
One more clarification that is probably worth making: There are some people who say that once a person becomes a Christian, there should never be any further talk of God’s wrath in that person’s life. There should never be any fear. “Perfect love casts out fear” (1 John 4:18) and, thus, Christians who enjoyed God’s perfect love in Christ Jesus need never to fear again. That is not quite right. I know what is being said. The true element in that kind of utterance is that those who are amongst the chosen of God, the elect of God, don’t face the fear of final judgment. They don’t face the fear of God’s eternal wrath in hell.
Yet Paul, writing to the Philippians, says that we are to work on our salvation with fear and trembling (Philippians 2:12). God’s love is perfect, but we don’t experience it perfectly, because we still continue to sin. And there is a kind of punishment that God enacts in the same way that an earthly father punishes his children rightly, for their good (Hebrews 12:10). It is not an act of ultimate judicial judgment, of course not — not if you are amongst the people of God. But nevertheless, if Paul can insist that the way we work out our salvation is with fear and trembling, it is precisely because we are not yet ourselves perfected in love and won’t be perfected in love until the new heaven and the new earth.
So, that is a sort of a brief bird’s-eye view of the theme and the way it is connected with several other themes right across the whole breadth and sweep of Scripture.
Such an essential theme to grasp, thank you, Dr. Carson. So we’re trying to help Bible readers put their Bibles together, Genesis to Revelation. And as you mentioned earlier, we see 600 references to God’s wrath in the Old Testament. What would you say to a reader who thinks: The God of the OT is a God of wrath. The God of the NT is a God of love. How do you reconcile the false dichotomy that feels so very real to many Bible readers?
It is a good question. The objection that you raise is an exceedingly common one. And I think it is partly because contemporary readers look at the passages of judgment in the Old Testament, and they are bound up with war and famine and physical suffering and so on. And today, people are more frightened of those kinds of things than they are of hell itself.
But the reality is that the Old Testament speaks much of the love of God. “As a father shows compassion to his children, so the Lord shows compassion to those who fear him. For he knows our frame; he remembers that we are dust” (Psalm 103:12–14). “He will not always chide” (Psalm 103:9). “[He] . . . is slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love” (Psalm 103:8). All of those are Old Testament phrases, Old Testament themes.
And in the New Testament, yes, yes, we speak of gentle Jesus, meek and mild, who will not snuff a smoking wick or break a bruised reed and so on (see Matthew 12:20). But that same Jesus is the one who speaks more often than everybody else in the New Testament put together about hell. And then there are passages like the end of Revelation 14. “The angel swung his sickle across the earth and gathered the grape harvest of the earth and threw it into the great winepress of the wrath of God. And the winepress was trodden outside the city, and blood flowed from the winepress, as high as a horse's bridle, for 1,600 stadia” (Revelation 14:19–20).
Here is an image, metaphorical though it may be, of people being trampled down in a winepress until their blood rises to the height of a horse’s bridle for a distance of 200 miles. And within that framework, just speaking of the New Testament being kindler and gentler is hugely mistaken. Instead of moving from a picture of the wrath of God to a picture of the love of God, as you move from the Old Testament to the New, instead, what you have is the ratcheting of both themes.
That is, as you move from the Old to the New, the picture of the love of God is ratcheted up. It does become ever clearer and more wonderful and more explicit, bound up with the very person and work of Christ. But the picture of hell is also ratcheted up. So that, far from softening things, as you move from temporal judgments and earthly judgments and war and famine and plagues, you don’t move from there to softness and moral indifferentism. You move, instead, to hell itself. It seems to me that both of those themes are ratcheted up. And the only way they can ever be reconciled is precisely in the cross.
That is magnificently helpful statement for Bible readers to understand. So wrath is ratcheted up as redemptive history unfolds, this becomes a heavier and heavier theme. But it also invites us to a new appreciation for the cross. If the church loses its grip on God’s wrath, salvation can degenerate pretty quickly and reduced to terms primarily about therapeutic well-being and self-actualizing. Talk to us about the implications here.
That is a common trajectory. It doesn’t have to go that far, but it is a common trajectory. In other words, there are some people who talk about the cancelling of sin and the cancelling of guilt and the cancelling of shame and, in that sense, are remaining true to one of the important themes in Scripture. But if you lose the turning aside of the wrath of God, what you lose is how sin is, itself, bound up with offending God. It is not just offending an impersonal moral code. It is offending God. And, thus, the love of God is lost or, at least, the glory of the love of God is lost.
What you have is a nice God who comes and loves us in some measure to get us out of a trouble that we have found ourselves in, that we have put ourselves in. But you don’t have a picture of a God who rightly stands against us in judicial wrath and loves us anyway, because he is that kind of God. And that is the biggest thing that is lost, it seems to me. And then, with time, a softening view of sin means a softening view of wrath and vice versa. If you have a softening view of wrath, then sin becomes less an offense to God and, instead, a kind of moral failure against an independent, impersonal code. And thus, it becomes less personally offensive to God, and the notion of salvation is changed.
And then it is possible to take further steps along the trajectory until salvation itself becomes more psychological than anything. It is not an inevitable pathway, but it is a very common one.
Find other recent and popular Ask Pastor John episodes.