The wrath of God. A variety of images can be conjured up depending on when and where you grew up. My guess would be that the majority in the younger generations have no real framework for the term. They’ve grown up on a steady diet of affirmation and tolerance and thus their image of God, if they think about Him, is that of the kindly old grandfather who smiles and nods and gives you whatever you want. On the other hand, those of us with a bit more mileage, remember preachers and evangelists who spoke regularly about the wrath of God. In fact, they spoke about it so vehemently that you went away thinking that God spends His time storming around Heaven in a constant rage looking for someone to smite and that if you didn’t toe the line, you might get the next smiting. Thus, the idea of God having wrath is repugnant to most everyone in the modern era. Of course, neither of these ideas is accurate and we need an accurate understanding of God and of God’s wrath if the Gospel is going to make any sense.
If my view of God is that of the kindly grandfather, one who loves me and accepts me no matter what and who gives me whatever I ask for, then I can have a certain level of appreciation for Him, but I’ll never come to a place of awe and wonder. My attitude toward Him will be similar to the way I think about a vending machine or a convenience store. When I want a snack, I’m glad they are there, but I am not amazed, or humbled or caught up in worship. Until I begin to understand the wrath of God, my love and appreciation for Him will be shallow and transactional at best. Understanding His wrath helps me understand the price He paid to make me His own. It helps me begin to grasp the depth of His love. Here’s a classic illustration: Suppose you meet me at my house and you tell me you grabbed the mail out of the box and noticed I had a bill that was due, so you paid it. If you paid the bill for postage due or my magazine subscription I might say “Gee, thanks.” If I find out you paid off my mortgage my response would be much more profound. I’d hug your neck or maybe even kiss your feet and wonder how I could possibly repay such kindness. Until I have an accurate understanding of the debt I owe, the depth of my sin, of God’s wrath against my sin and the price that was paid to satisfy His wrath, I cannot begin to understand the depth of His love.
God is perfect in all His ways. His love is a perfect love and He loves perfectly. He is also holy and perfectly just and everything He does is perfectly right and good. Sin stands in opposition and contradiction to God’s perfection. It is a defiance of His perfect will, a rebellion against His perfect plan and denigration of His perfect character. Every sin deserves and will receive its full and just punishment. Wrath is God’s settled disposition against sin and His settled determination to bring about justice and righteousness and to justly punish sin. God’s wrath is a perfect part of His holiness and justice. His wrath is not like any human wrath. It is perfectly balanced with all of His other perfect attributes. So we can rightly say that God hates sin with a holy and perfectly righteous hatred while at the same time loving the sinner with a perfectly holy and righteous love. The obvious question is: How can He do that? How can He put an end to sin without destroying the sinner since every sin must receive its just punishment?
The reason God is not storming around Heaven in a fit of rage is because the issue was settled from the very beginning and predicted the moment after sin had defaced God’s good creation. It never made sense until Jesus came but Genesis 3:15 tells us God the Son would come to earth in the most absurdly normal way possible as “the seed of the woman.” He would be made like us and be subjected to every temptation possible without ever giving in. He would live perfectly in our place. Then He would die. That’s the metaphor of the serpent striking His heel. The only One who never deserved to be punished, who never deserved to die would die in our place. He would take our sin upon Himself, becoming the final atoning sacrifice that all the other sacrifices were pointing to. As He surrendered Himself to the Father’s will, He took the punishment that we deserved.
That’s what was going on in the Garden of Gethsemane. The Father was holding out the cup of His wrath to His Son. This cup, which the prophets spoke about time and again, was the just and righteous punishment that all sin deserves. The just punishment for every lie, slander, gossip and careless word, every murder, act of violence or hatred, every act of defiance, rebellion or treason, every adultery, fornication, lust and immorality, every act of greed, envy and coveting, every transgression of God’s perfect law and will, every sin, the punishment for it was in that cup. The just punishment that I deserve and you deserve, that all of us deserve, was in that cup. This is why Jesus cried in anguish in the garden. This is why He sweat drops of blood. In order for the Father to be able to justly punish sin without destroying us, Jesus had to drink the cup. Because He had lived His life perfectly, loving the Father with all of His being and loving His neighbor perfectly, He was the only One qualified and capable. That is what it meant for Him to be our redeemer, our sin bearer. Isaiah 53:5 says, “But He was pierced for our transgressions, He was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on Him and by His wounds we are healed.” By allowing Himself to be crushed, He crushed the head of the serpent, defeating sin and death with him. By faith in Jesus and what He has done the wrath of God is satisfied and we can be set free from the death sentence that we rightly deserved. That is Good News! Halleluiah, what a Savior!