Friday, December 20, 2013

How God's Wrath is illustrated in the Bible

Genesis 3:17 "Then to Adam He said, “Because you have listened to the voice of your wife, and have eaten from the tree about which I commanded you, saying, ‘You shall not eat from it'". 

Genesis 3:21  "The Lord God made garments of skin for Adam and his wife, and clothed them."

Genesis 3:24 "So He drove the man out; and at the east of the garden of Eden He stationed the cherubim and the flaming sword which turned every direction to guard the way to the tree of life."

Introduction and Review
Yesterday we began by noting A.W Tozer's definition of wrath: "wrath is God's relentless affirmation of His dominion" and "God's wrath is His utter intolerance of whatever degrades and destroys".  Also too we discovered that Paul's emphasis upon the wrath of God in Romans demonstrates that the Gospel cannot be properly understood nor communicated without it.  We then launched into exploration of the key Hebrew/Aramaic and Greek words used by the Biblical authors in defining God's wrath.  We concluded among other things yesterday that God's wrath is His settled opposition to creaturely sin and any attacks upon His holy character. 

In today's post we want to gain a little more concrete understanding of the concept of God's wrath by seeing how it is illustrated in the Bible.  The most common way the Bible describes God's wrath is in how wrath in general is a quality also expressed by human beings.  Within the realm of various human relationships we see wrath expressed and thus demonstrates how vital such a quality and expression is to God Himself. Before we consider the various illustrations of God's wrath, we first need to build our understanding of God's wrath on the distinctions often made in the realm of His attributes.

God's incommunicable and communicable attributes

Theologian Michael Horton discusses the attributes or characteristics of God by the two fold method of classification called "incommunicable attributes" and "communicable attributes". Horton writes: "God's attributes have often been distinguished as incommunicable and communicable, so called to distinguish those attributes that belong to God alone and those that may be predicated of God and humans."1
When one hears that term "communicable", the normal context is in the realm of the study of diseases where we describe such viruses as the "cold virus" as communicable, meaning it's qualities and pathology can be shared by multiple persons through contact, sneezing or coughing on one another.  

Examples of God's incommunicable attributes would be His omniscience, omnipresence, omnipotence, self-sufficiency (aseity) and simplicity (God's attributes are equal to His being). No creature, whether they be angel, man or animal has such qualities - such qualities are incommunicable. 

On the other hand God's other attributes - such as His love, justice, wrath, jealousy, mercy, grace, holiness and other moral perfections are seen by way of analogy in the fabric of humanity - in a limited way in unbelievers and in a fuller way in Christians. Theologian W.G.T Shedd comments: "The communicable attributes are those which are possessed in a finite degree, more or less, by men and angels. Such are wisdom, benevolence, holiness, justice, compassion, truth. It is with reference to these that man is said to be created in the image of God, Gen. 1:27; and to be made partaker, by regeneration, of a divine nature, 2 Peter 1:4; and is commanded to imitate God: "Be ye holy for I am holy," 1 Pet. 1:16." 2 

Among those communicable attributes is the quality of wrath.  Within the realm of human relationships: namely judges and criminals; parents and children and marital relationships is wrath commonly seen and is used by the Bible to explain God's just dealings with human beings.

How God's wrath is illustrated in the Bible
1. A Judge and criminals
In the opening pages of sacred scripture we see God dealing with Adam and his wife, and really the whole creation as a Judge would with those who committed treason.  God had given Adam a handful of laws in the original Covenant of works arrangement in Genesis 1-2 (eat freely from every tree, be fruitful, take dominion over the animals and don't eat from the tree of knowledge). When Adam and his wife disregarded those original laws, they became law-breakers and fugitives in hiding, as indicated by their hiding from God when He came down in Genesis 3:8. God's pronouncement of the curse on them, their posterity and creation was His wrath being expressed as the righteous judge. God had told Adam originally in Genesis 2:17 that if he ate from the tree of knowledge, he would surely die (or literally dying die in the Hebrew). Romans 1:18 reminds the reader that God's wrath is being revealed from heaven against man's unrighteousness and lawlessness.  Furthermore, because of the one man's transgression, sin and death came upon all and included decay in the created realm. (Romans 5:12; 8:21-25) 

As the Biblical revelation proceeds forward, Abraham boldly remarks in Genesis 18:25 that God is the righteous Judge of all the earth Whom would never judge the righteous with the wicked. In Jeremiah 11:20 and 1 Peter 2:23 we see remarks made about God's justice in wrath as being a source of comfort to believers who rely upon the Lord for their salvation and deliverance. Jesus Himself uses the imagery of a judge in his famous short parable of the unjust judge in Luke 18:1-5. If God were not the righteous judge of all the wrath, He could not be God at all, being that He exercises his Sovereign rule on the basis of righteousness and truth, with lovingkindness and truth going before Him. (Psalm 89:14)  

Certainly Jesus' final sermon in Matthew 24-25 and John the Revelator's statements in Revelation 20 of the final judgment all point to this imagery of God in His wrath functioning as The Just Judge and the objects of His wrath being impenitent criminals. Such a revelation of truth is vital if any appreciation of God's grace and mercy is to be seriously grasped.

2. God's wrath illustrated as a Parent dealing with a child
God's wrath is not only illustrated by Him being the judge and sinful man being the treasonous criminal, but also through the relationship a parent has with a child.  In the same chapter of Genesis 3 we see God's wrath in dealing with Adam and Eve as that of a Parent to a child. Scripture reminds us that Adam in his redemptive relationship to God was consider a "son of God". (Luke 3:38) 

The banishment of our original parents from the Garden of Eden in Genesis 3:24 was an act of wrath for sure, in that God had posted a holy angel with a flaming sword at the entryway. Yet when you think about it, God is removing his redeemed children (Adam and Eve) from possibly inflicting further harm on themselves. We know that Adam and Eve ended up believers by virtue of God's Covenant of grace made with Eve, and her reception of it in Genesis 3:15, Adam's confession of that reality of that covenant in Genesis 3:20 and God's provision of atonement for them both in Genesis 3:21. God's wrath was satisfied by the shedding of innocent blood, the objective foundation of His Covenant of grace that was fulfilled ultimately in Jesus' work on the cross. (1 Timothy 4:10; 1 John 2:2) 

Consider what would had occurred if the original couple had gained access to the tree of life - they would had remained in an everlasting state of decay. God's Fatherly, Sovereign grace was protecting them and preserving them in their faith. 

A good parent will, if need be, exercise intervention and aggression in order to remove out of their child's life what they know to be harmful. Likewise a good parent knows how to bar their child from engagement with further harmful influences, friends or relationships if need be. Such actions can be viewed by the child as harsh, cruel and even detrimental. Yet a good parent knows what is best for the child far above the child's limited life experience and novel wisdom.  

Sin is not only a moral rebellion against God but in the life of a child of God functions as a rot, a decay that is opposite of the new nature created in Christ. In the Christian's life, God's judgment is termed "discipline". Consider Hebrews 12:6 "For those whom the Lord loves He disciplines,And He scourges every son whom He receives.”  Throughout the Old Testament, God's wrathful dealings with the nation of Israel was like that of a parent dealing with the children whom He redeemed. (compare Deuteronomy 32:18; Hosea 11:1)
Likewise when the New Testament describes God's dealings with believers, over 100 times we see reference made to God being our Father. Such a relationship occurs as God saw fit to choose in eternity, then call in time, then convict sinners by His Spirit who upon their faith, become adopted sons and daughters through faith in Jesus Christ. (John 1:12-13, 6:44; Romans 8:14-16; Galatians 4:5-6)

Sadly fallen man does not see God in His love reaching out to redeem him, but rather in his fallen condition he sees God in the general revelation of his conscience and the creation as someone to hate and avoid, rather than to love and embrace. The wrath of God on sinful humanity is extended justly and rests already upon all sinners due to the fact they are born in sin and by nature reject general revelation as well as God's special revelation in Jesus Christ. (John 3:36; Ephesians 2:1-4)  Unless by grace through faith Christ is trusted upon as the sinner's only satisfaction for sin, God will ever be perceived as Judge, not Father.  As the Judge who is Father, God in His wrath also does what any good parent sometimes has to do - namely let their child experience the consequences of their choices and actions. No one who ends up in hell is crying out to God in repentance and admittance of wrong doing, (Luke 16) but prefers to remain at odds with God and cling to their own standards and opinions.

3. God's wrath illustrated in terms of a betrayed spouse
Out of all the ways in which God's wrath is illustrated in scripture, perhaps none is more dramatic that the imagery God uses of a betrayed spouse.  Numerous scriptures in the Old and New Testaments both use this imagery to drive home the teaching of the necessity of God's wrath in the understanding of the Biblical revelation of Himself. (Isaiah 50:1; Jeremiah 3:1-5; Ezekiel 16; Hosea 2-4; 2 Corinthians 11:1-4)  

When God's wrathful dealings is expressed towards His people who have chosen sin for a season, the Bible uses the term "jealous".  Jealousy is a communicable attribute of God that we see expressed in situations where a spoused has been betrayed and hurt by an unfaithful spouse. (Numbers 5:14; Proverbs 6:34; Song of Songs 8:6; 2 Corinthians 11:2) Jealousy is love in its most fervent form, demanding total loyalty and refusing to share the covenant love of the marital bonds with another would-be contender.  Theologian J.I Packer notes concerning such marital jealousy: "it treats his resolve to guard his marriage against attack, and to take action against anyone who violates it, as natural, normal, and right, and a proof that he values the marriage as he should. Now, scripture consistently view God's jealousy as being of this latter kind: that is, and an aspect of His covenant  love for His own people."3 When we speak of God's Covenant loyalty to His people in terms of jealousy, He may at times do whatever it takes to "get our attention" and remove out of our lives whatever distractions, sins and even people are persistently getting between He and us. This is why in the New Testament, such scriptures as 2 Corinthians 11:1-4 and James 4:3-4 describe believers who fraternize with the world as committing spiritual adultery, and thus may result in seasons of unanswered prayer, grieving of the Spirit (Ephesians 4:30) or if not repented of, physical death so as to save the Christian from eternal loss. (Proverbs 29:1; 1 Corinthians 11:30-32).

We discovered that as a communicable attribute, wrath as it functions among people demonstrates the appropriateness of God Himself being the God of wrath.  Without wrath, God could not be the God of Holiness and love who loves righteousness and hates sin.  We also explored how the Bible illustrates God's wrath as expressed in three types of relationships: Judge to the guilty, Parent to child and A Betrayed spouse to an unfaithful spouse.  We further saw that wrath, in lines with those three types of relationships, is expressed by God as judgment or retribution towards unbelievers, as discipline or attempts at restoration towards Christians.  For those unbelievers who persist in unbelief and rebellion, God's wrath revealed in creation and the conscience will be forever manifested to them in eternity in hell. Then finally, and perhaps most importantly, without an understanding of God's wrath in the Bible, we cannot appreciate the significance of God's mercy and grace in the Gospel, which is why Paul in Romans devotes the large portion of Romans 1-3 on the subject of wrath.  

1. Michael Horton. The Christian Faith - A Systematic Theology for Pilgrims on the Way. Zondervan. 2011. Page 225.

2. W.G.T Shedd. Dogmatic Theology - Volume 1. Zondervan. 1969 reprint of 1888 edition. Page 337.

3. J.I. Packer. Knowing God. IVP. 1973. Page 154