Grief and Wrath: The Personal Problem
In order for humanity to be reconciled to God, it is necessary to know God. We obviously cannot be joined to someone we do not know. We need to know what his character is like, how he is disposed toward us, and how he feels concerning sin. We must further take time to study God’s love memos dealing with his thoughts and attitudes or be destined as a result of our moral drift to misinterpret Him entirely.
An earlier chapter mentioned the profound alteration which took place in Adam’s heart following his sin. Adam’s new desire to conceal himself from God indicated that he believed that God, also, had changed. This very concept has carried on throughout the entire race of rebellious men and women. They imagine a God of wrath filled with a desire for vindication. They wonder if perhaps the wrath of God kindled by their sin may not be, at least partially, appeased by gifts or by suffering. The tragic spectacle of men worshiping God from fear is heightened by pitiful rituals of self inflicted torment. The worldwide hope is that God will be soothed as He watches the sinner suffer. P. P. Waldenstrom in his book, Be Ye Reconciled to God, states:
Many dear children of God view this as the very essence of Christ’s work. They think they never can escape the wrath of God, unless it has been poured out upon someone else in their stead. In their opinion, the chief significance of Christ is that He be a shelter to shield against God or, so to speak, a lightning rod for His wrath, in order that they may feel safe before Him. P. P. Walden Strom, Be Ye Reconciled to God, Men for Missions, p. 3.
Isaiah Watts’ hymn highlights this misconception:
Rich were the drops of Jesus’ blood
That calm’d his frowning face,
That sprinkled o’er the burning throne
And turn’d the wrath to grace.
Thy hands, dear Jesus,
were not arm’d With a revenging rod;
No hard commission to perform,—
The vengeance of a God.
But all was mercy, all was mild,
And wrath forsook the throne,
When Christ on the kind errand came
And brought salvation down.
As Albert Barnes rightly observes,
“In such language as this, while something may be set down to mere poetry and to the overflowing emotions of gratitude to the Saviour for the part which he has performed in the work of redemption, it is undoubtedly implied, by the fair interpretation of the language, that a change has been produced in God by the work of the atonement; that in some way a Being before stern, severe, and angry has been made mild, forgiving and kind.” Albert Barnes, The Atonement, Bethany Fellowship, p. 220–221.
This serves to illustrate the tremendous need to discuss God’s attitude and approach in the process of reconciliation. Christians have grasped hold of scriptures pertaining to God’s wrath and, in the midst of their theorizing, missed an extremely important point. It was not God who needed to be reconciled to man, but it was man who needed to be reconciled to God. God’s disposition of love toward man has never changed; it has not been diminished by the “fall” or any other subsequent event. There is, in fact, no sin which man could commit capable of severing God’s love. There is nothing one can do to make God stop loving. God hates sin but not people. The love of God never needed to be restored by propitiation, because it was never lost. The atonement could not have changed God, for He tells us plainly that His character is unchanging (James 1:17).
The essential idea in the atonement is, not that God was originally stern and inexorable and that he has been made mild and merciful by the atonement, but that the atonement itself has its foundation in his willingness to pardon; not that he has been made benevolent by the atonement, but that he was originally so disposed to show mercy that he was willing to stoop to any sacrifice but that of truth and justice in order that he might show his willingness to pardon the guilty. He gave his Son to die, not that he might be bought over to love, but as the expression of love. Ibid., p. 220–221.
When the Bible speaks of the wrath of God, to what does it refer? Everywhere the object of God’s wrath is described as sin and unrighteousness. This is a hatred that will never be appeased or changed. Christ’s death in no way affected the righteous wrath of God toward sin. How would the universe survive if God should cease to hate sin? The Bible also speaks of a “wrath to come” (Luke 3:7). Man’s preparations for that day are also included in Scripture:
But, after thy hardness and impenitent heart, treasurest up unto thyself wrath against the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God. Romans 2:5
The first time the word wrath appears here, it may be interpreted to read guilt. The second time it appears as the painful duty of a righteous God. It is the consequences levied against unrepentant sinners. We have already seen the incredible grief that sin brings to God, and the execution of judgment brings Him even less comfort. God pleads with men to change their hearts so He can withhold judgment.
Say to them, As I live, says the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live; turn back, turn back from your evil ways; for why will you die; O house of Israel? Ezekiel 33:11 (RSV)
For He does not afflict willingly, or grieve the sons of men. Lamentations 3:33 (NASB)
Come now, and let us reason together, saith the Lord: though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool. If ye be willing and obedient, ye shall eat the good of the land: but if ye refuse and rebel, ye shall be devoured with the sword: for the mouth of the Lord hath spoken it. Isaiah 1:18–20
We can clearly see that it is not God’s desire to see judgment and if we, like Nineveh, will be willing to repent then we will find “a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abundant in lovingkindness, and One who relents concerning calamity” (Jonah 4:2).
On the other hand, if we staunchly refuse God’s offer to “reason together,” there will eventually come a time when God is regretfully conscious that the means at His disposal to secure man’s obedience have been exhausted. It is at this moment that God’s grief reaches a climax, for He knows that for the highest good of all involved He must judge the unrepentant offender. There is a song on a children’s album that expresses this point beautifully, about Noah entering the ark and God’s subsequent judgment of wickedness on earth:
But as the Lord was speaking, He then began to cry. He wept and wept for 40 days. He wept 40 nights. Though it had never rained before in all the earth’s long years, now up the ark began to rise upon God’s tears. Agapeland, Candle Company Music