This is part of my lent series on J.I. Packer’s ‘Knowing God’ – first post here.
A few years ago we went to New Word Alive (you may remember me blogging about the experience … but probably not). Anyway, I recall thinking in one of the main meetings, “every song we’ve sung tonight so far has mentioned God’s wrath”. It seems that in the conservative stream of evangelicalism, God’s wrath has received something of a revival: if people are writing songs which mention it, clearly it’s not the taboo subject that it was when Jim Packer was writing this chapter in Knowing God! But at the same time, I do think it’s a fairly uncomfortable issue which we don’t really like talking about very much. But Packer says, “Why, when the Bible is so vocal about [God’s wrath], should we feel obliged to be silent?”
It is true that the Bible is vocal about wrath – it’s struck me, as I’ve been studying John’s Gospel this term, how much wrath is mentioned even in John. For example, John 3:36, “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God’s wrath remains on them.”
That said, wrath is not an easy subject to talk about – and I believe that is the way it is supposed to be. It is meant to drive us out of our comfort zones, to drive us from self-reliance and rely instead on God.
There were a few things which Jim Packer said which I’d like to pick up on. Firstly, he said we often have difficulty talking about God’s wrath because we think it’s somehow unworthy of God. The problem, it turns out, is that we can only think of wrath in purely human terms: and, in purely human terms, wrath is something which is often unjust or capricious etc. But Packer says, “God’s wrath in the Bible is never the capricious, self-indulgent, irritable, morally ignoble thing that human anger so often is. It is, instead, a right and necessary reaction to objective moral evil.” In other words, it would actually be impossible to have a morally perfect God without the concept of wrath, in a universe like ours where good and evil exist. “Would a God who did not react adversely to evil in His world be morally perfect? Surely not.”
In other words, in contrast to human wrath or anger, God’s wrath is always a judicious reaction against moral evil, not a “flying off the handle” kind of anger.
Secondly, I found this helpful: “God’s wrath in the Bible is something which men choose for themselves.” This choosing is in the form of rejecting the light shone by Jesus Christ (c.f. John 3:16-21) “The decisive act of judgement upon the lost is the judgement which they pass upon themselves, by rejecting the light that comes to them in and through Jesus Christ.” Our choice is simple: either to respond to Jesus’ command “Come to me”, or not; to either keep your life from Jesus’ lordship or submit to it.
Thirdly, I found it helpful to see that the consequences of God’s wrath are not unjust but are instead simply giving people what they want:
Nobody stands under the wrath of God save those who have chosen to do so. The essence of God’s action in wrath is to give men what they choose, in all its implications: nothing more, and equally nothing less … We need, therefore, to remember that the key to interpreting the many biblical passages, often highly figurative, which picture the divine King and Judge as active against men in wrath and vengeance, is to realise that what God is hereby doing is no more than to ratify and confirm judgements which those whom He ‘visits’ have already passed on themselves by the course they have chosen to follow.
Now, I’m not entirely sure how what Packer says here fits in with ideas of predestination, but I think from our perspective this is absolutely true: God’s wrath is not arbitrary. We choose it for ourselves, by electing to rebel against our creator. Wrath is entirely deserved.
Finally, the solution to God’s wrath is to be found in the Lord Jesus Christ: “Between us sinners and the thunderclouds of divine wrath stands the cross of the Lord Jesus. If we are Christ’s, through faith, then we are justified through His cross, and the wrath will never touch us, neither here nor hereafter. Jesus ‘delivers us from the wrath to come’ (1 Thess 1:10, RSV)”.
This is the crux of the gospel: if we do not understand God’s wrath, then we do not understand his grace. If we do not understand God’s holiness, how can we treat him with due reverence? Wrath is a “solemn reality”, as Packer calls it, but thanks be to the Lord Jesus Christ who has delivered all those who believe and trust in Him.