The wrath of God is a neglected doctrine. Well-intentioned but poorly-disciplined imaginists have contributed to this neglect. Transgressing the bounds of Scripture, they have conjured up descriptions of wrath and punishment savoring more of Dante than of the Gospel. God has been misrepresented as a merciless tyrant more reminiscent of the brutal soldiers of Pilate than of the compassionate victim of their violence. This type of hell-fire-and-brimstone preaching serves only to lessen the effect of a true biblical doctrine upon the minds of intelligent and sensitive listeners.
The abuse of this doctrine, however, does not justify its neglect. It is a vital component of the “whole counsel of God.” It is a revealed truth prominently mentioned in the New Testament. As such it ought to be preached and taught to sinful men in each generation.
In The Bible Text
The Greek term for God’s wrath is orgé, and it refers, not to furious outbursts of selfish resentment or petulant anger, but to the intense recoil of divine holiness from sin, and to the equally intense judgment of God upon sin. Although we must not liken the wrath of God to the sinful human passion of selfish vindictiveness, it is just as erroneous to conceive of his wrath as so unlike human emotions that it becomes unreal and irrelevant. Denney well reminds us that “God’s wrath is no empty name, but the most terrible of all powers—a consuming fire in which everything opposed to His holiness is burnt up” (The Expositor’s Bible, on 1 Thess. 1:10).
The Greek terms orgé, orgés, and orgén occur in some 28 New Testament passages. Five references occur in the Gospels, seventeen in the Epistles, and six in the Apocalypse. Here is the list: Matthew 3:7; Mark 3:5; Luke 3:7; 21:23; John 3:36; Romans 1:18; 2:5, 8; 3:5; 5:9; 9:22; 13:4, 5; Ephesians 2:3; 5:6; Colossians 3:6; 1 Thessalonians 1:10; 2:16; 5:9; Hebrews 3:11; 4:3; Revelation 6:16, 17; 11:18; 14:10; 16:19; 19:15.
The King James Version renders orgés as “anger” in Mark 3:5, and orgén as “vegeance” in Romans 3:5. The word “wrath” is used also to translate the Greek thumou in six places, all of them in the Apocalypse (14:16, 19; 15:1, 7; 16:1, 19). While orgé and thumos are related terms, they are not identical. George R. Berry distinguishes them nicely; “thumos is impulsive, turbulent anger; orgé is anger as a settled habit” (Greek-English Lexicon to the New Testament, p. 47). Orgé is the fixed emotion of God toward evil, the necessary repulsion of his holiness against all sin. Thumos is that same attitude expressed in positive and punitive action. It is the latent fire in the heart of a volcano released finally in vehement and furious eruption.
The wrath of God is, of course, expressed by other words and described in other passages. A classic and awesome example is 2 Thessalonians 1:7–9. In the restricted compass of this article we cannot survey in details these 28 explicit references to the divine orgé. But attention can be directed to the sins that call it forth and to the forms that it assumes.
Provoked By Serious Sins
All sin elicits the wrath of God, for his holiness is absolute and uncompromised, and repulsed by any form or degree of iniquity. Nevertheless, the New Testament mentions certain specific evils as drawing down the wrath of God upon evildoers.
The wrath of God blased in the eyes of Jesus when he looked upon his enemies “with anger (orgé) being grieved for the hardness of their hearts” (Mark 3:5). Lack of compassion was expressed in their opposition, under the pretense of loyalty to the sabbatic laws, to the healing of a crippled man. Lovelessness is a sin which negates the very nature of God, for “God is love” (1 John 4:8). Wrath is the inevitable reaction of God to this enormous evil.
In John 3:36 the wrath of God is pictured as “abiding” upon those who are guilty of unbelief in the Son of God. The context shows that such unbelief arises not out of ignorance, but out of disobedience to the testimony of God in Christ (vv. 31–35).
The deliberate suppression of truth in unrighteousness provokes the wrath of God (Rom. 1:18). Here the phrase “hold the truth” should be rendered “hold down the truth.” The truth by which men are saved is checked in many lives by the iniquities to which they are abandoned. Truth is sinned away!
The main sin of the pagan world in Paul’s day was sexual immorality, both in conversation and conduct. Such promiscuity, he declares, invites the wrath of God “upon the children of disobedience” (Eph. 5:2–6; Col. 3:6). How desperately our loose-talking and fast-living generation needs an echo of the apostolic thunder against the perversion and exploitation of sex!
An ominous phrase, “wrath to the uttermost,” is used to designate the punishment of men who hinder and oppose the gospel message (1 Thess. 2:16). Certain Jews had forbidden the apostle “to speak to the Gentiles that they might be saved.” By this attempt to muzzle the Gospel they “filled up” their sins, bringing them to the overflowing measure which made the response of divine wrath inevitable and inescapable. God has invested blood in man’s salvation. He cannot lightly regard those who despise the Cross and assay to silence its witnesses.
Finally, in Hebrews 3:11 and 4:3, the historic example of Israel’s rebellion in the wilderness is cited as an occasion for the wrath of God. With hardened hearts they refused to enter Canaan, and God sware in his wrath, “They shall not enter into my rest.” Now a rest from the guilt and bondage of sin is provided in Christ. We are warned not to harden our hearts and refuse that rest while God is calling to it. Our unbelief can issue in withdrawn privilege, the punitive action of holy wrath. Matthew Henry has a trenchant remark on Luke 14:24 that is fitting here: “They who will not have Christ when they may, can not have Him when they would. Even those who were bidden, if they slight the invitation shall be forbidden.”
Manifested In Various Ways
The prophetic words of Jesus in Luke 21:23 identify the destruction of Jerusalem, fulfilled in 70 A.D., as a signal instance of divine wrath upon a Christ-rejecting nation. Some political calamities reflect more than the changing fortunes of war; they evidence the displeasure of God, the sovereign ruler of the universe.
Those who suppressed the truth in unrighteousness (Rom. 1:18) were judicially abandoned to their unclean lusts, vile affections, and reprobate minds. Three times the apostle employs the chilling clause, “God gave them up” (vv. 24–28). Sometimes in his wrath God smites men down; at other times he gives men up!
In Romans 13:4 Paul views a ruler as “the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil.” Evildoers are grimly reminded, “he beareth not the sword in vain.” The sword “betokens the power of capital punishment” (Henry Alford, The New Testament for English Readers, p. 955). A magistrate’s imposition of the death penalty upon criminals is one expression of the divine wrath.
An earthquake, occurring in consonance with the conflict at Armageddon and unprecedented in devastating power, topples Babylon, symbol of human pride and revolt. The incident is interpreted by the Apocalyptic seer as “the fierceness of God’s wrath” (Rev. 16:19).
The punishment of those who “worship the beast and his image” is described by the terrifying figure of torment in fire and brimstone forever. Suffering this punishment is further described as drinking “the wine of the wrath of God, which is poured out without mixture into the cup of his indignation” (Rev. 14:9–11).
The final judgment of impenitent men is associated with the wrath of God. Thus the Revelator writes, “Thy wrath is come, and the time of the dead, that they should be judged” (Rev. 11:18). And Paul gravely warns of “the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God, who will render to every man according to his deeds” (Rom. 2:5, 6). In both passages the condemnation of the wicked is viewed in contrast to the rewarding of the righteous.
To this aspect of God’s wrath, the future judgment and punishment of the wicked, we must associate such phrases as “the day of wrath” (Rom. 2:5; Rev. 16:7) and “the wrath to come” (Matt. 3:7; Luke 3:7; 1 Thess. 1:10). Divine wrath is visited upon certain sins in various ways here and now, but its ultimate revelation and severest infliction await the future. The penal consequences of sin endured in the bodies and minds of men now are mere tokens of a coming “wrath to the uttermost” (1 Thess. 2:16).
Expression Of Righteousness
God’s wrath is holy and righteous altogether. It is never the expenditure of personal rancor and bitter malice upon helpless and undeserving victims. It is “the wrath of the Lamb” (Rev. 6:16). We associate meekness and gentleness with a lamb, not wrath. In meekness the Lamb of God was sacrificed at Calvary for the sins of the world. Wrath is God’s “strange work” of vengeance upon those who scorn that Cross. Their sin and guilt is aggravated and compounded by their inexcusable rejection of “Jesus, our deliverer from the coming wrath” (1 Thess. 1:10, literally). By the intensity of his love which provided the Cross, we may gain some insight into the equally intense wrath that must avenge the Cross.
The righteousness of divine wrath is further seen in the character of those who shall suffer it. The impenitent are referred to as “children of wrath” (Eph. 2:3) and “vessels of wrath fitted to destruction” (Rom. 9:22). The visitation of wrath upon men is not attributable to resentment, frustration, and malice in God, but to a fundamental and inexcusable wrongdoing and wrong-being in men. The love and mercy which save men from being scorned with ill-disguised contempt, God has no alternative but wrath. The wrath of God in its finality is just as horrifying as his love is amazing. Men deny that revealed truth at the peril of experiencing that horror. We ought fervently to thank God for a Book and its faithful expositors who warn us to “flee the wrath to come!”
C. H. Dodd shrugs off the wrath of God as “an archaic phrase” (Moffatt New Testament Commentary, Romans, p. 20). But until sin becomes anachronistic, the doctrine of wrath will be relevant. It is sin, and only sin, that arouses wrath in God. We have only to scan today’s headlines to realize how active the damning forces of evil continue to be. In the death of Christ wrath is propitiated. The wrath-provoking and hell-deserving sins of men can be forgiven. Those who believe on Christ will find that “He retaineth not his anger forever because he delighteth in mercy” (Micah 7:18). Those who reject Christ are without refuge from the storm of wrath coming upon a fallen race. Liberalism’s emasculated love and Universalism’s perverted logic to the contrary, upon the finally impenitent “wrath to the uttermost” must fall!
W. E. McCumber has been Pastor of the Church of the Nazarene in Thomasville, Georgia, since 1953. Earlier he ministered to the Arcadia, Florida, Church of the Nazarene. He is author of Holiness in the Prayers of St. Paul and other works.
LIFE! What is it?
Is it the scarlet thread
Running through flesh?
When it is stilled,
Are we then dead?
Life! What is it?
Is it the questing spirit
Seeking, ever seeking
Beyond the immensities
Where the circling planets,
Each in its orbit,
Speak of eternal order,
Sing of eternal LOVE?
In the immensities
Does spirit meet SPIRIT?
All seeking ended?
Home in the heart of God
Life finds fulfillment—
Finds its true end,
Finds its beginning.
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