Father of our Lord Jesus Christ,
maker of all things, judge of all men:
We acknowledge and bewail our manifold sins and wickedness,
which we from time to time most grievously have committed,
by thought, word, and deed, against thy divine Majesty,
provoking most justly thy wrath and indignation against us.
I pray this confession of sin nearly every day, and yet I find the language of God’s “wrath and indignation” somewhat alien. I bet you do, too.
Why does speaking of God’s wrath or anger or indignation seem strange, or even suspect? For example, the modern hymn “In Christ Alone” has provoked controversy with its lyric “Till on that cross as Jesus died/the wrath of God was satisfied.”
The problem is the picture this language seems to suggest: “that the cross is primarily about God’s need to assuage God’s anger,” as one critic put it. This picture (which is only a clumsy caricature of the so-called satisfaction theory of the Atonement) is rightly to be rejected as false and misleading — but, then, scattering a strawman doesn’t really accomplish much.
There is, though, a better way to understand the language of “the wrath of God,” a way that reveals its truth, goodness, and even its beauty. Believe it or not, the grammar of this better way is laid out by none other than John Calvin, that bête noire of the doctrine’s cultured despisers.
Calvin confronts directly what is perhaps the deepest criticism of “wrath of God” language: that it suggests a fundamental change of posture on God’s part as a result of the death of Jesus, thereby calling into question the conviction that God’s basic disposition toward us is one of love. Calvin asks how the Scriptures can say without contradiction both that God has given us a pledge of his love in Christ and that “God … was our enemy until he was reconciled to us by Christ” (Institutes 2.16.2).
Is God’s love antecedent to Christ or subsequent to Christ? Which is first: God’s love or God’s wrath?
Calvin’s answer is that when the Scriptures speak of God turning from wrath to love, these are “modes of expression” accommodated to our weakness, calculated to provoke an affective response in us, meant to startle us into knowing how absolute is our need for Christ. When we perceive that “without Christ God is in a manner hostile to us, and has his arm raised for our destruction,” we learn to cling to Christ alone. In other words, the Scriptures pursue the same strategy as Flannery O’Connor: “you have to make your vision apparent by shock — to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost blind you draw large and startling figures.”
Although such modes of speech are accommodations to our weakness, they speak nonetheless truly. “All of us … have that within which deserves the hatred of God,” he says (Institutes 2.16.3). God is perfectly good, utterly opposed to evil. Thus, God is necessarily opposed to the corruption of our nature inherited from our first parents and the acts we do to further that corruption. Nevertheless, all this depravity does not stop us being God’s good creatures: the Lord “still finds something in us which in kindness he can love … we are still his creatures.” Therefore, because the Lord first loved us, he reconciled us to himself in Christ Jesus, abolishing the evil within us.
Rightly understood, when the Scriptures speak of the wrath of God, they speak unequivocally of the love of God. Calvin helps us to see that the language of God’s wrath is meant to teach us that God is pro nobis, always and already for us.
Maybe Calvin just doesn’t do it for you. In that case, let me recommend a hearty dose of Austin Farrer. After all, I’m no Calvinist myself, but reading Farrer has done the most to help me see the good news of God’s wrath. In his little book, Lord, I Believe: Suggestions for Turning the Creed into Prayer, Farrer includes a lovely meditation on the wrath of God. Here are a few passages:
God has no sort of use for hateful things, and therefore it is that his hatred of them is absolute. He loves what is lovely in us and above all else, our love. Our refusals of love he hates, and everything that leads to such refusals: our pleasure in unworthy objects, the corruptions, divisions and enfeeblement of our love. His hatred of such things is exactly proportional to his love for us. He who loves me loves my health, he who loves my health hates my sickness; if his love for me is infinite, his detestation of my evil is immeasurable.
Delight is naturally kindled by delight and God, who loves his children’s love, delights in their delighting. How, then, is he disposed towards the causes of unwholesome sadness? The flame of happiness would run and spread, but for the obstacles my words and acts and attitudes oppose to it. How then is God disposed towards these acts and attitudes of mine? Does not he detest them? And what is the fate of things which earn the detestation of almighty love? Is it not that they should be abolished? God’s hatred or wrath is, indeed, nothing but this, a simple desire for the abolition of its object: it is not, like mine, a passion. Surely, then, God’s will is set to whither the tentacles of my unkindness, when they are twisted round my neighbour’s throat.
And again, a little later:
God’s will is set to wither the tentacles of my sin, whether they strangle my own virtue or my neighbour’s happiness. But how will he wither them? If he kills me they will wither, but equally they will wither if he makes me alive: if he gives another direction to my desire and turns my lifeblood back into its true channel, these monstrous growths will shrivel and drop away. His detestation will have taken full effect through the victory of his love, his wrath will have found its best instrument in mercy, if he destroys my evil by fostering my good.
God’s love arms his anger, for it moves him to hate the enemy of what he befriends; but then his anger lends arms to his love, for it moves him so to befriend his enemies that he starves their enmity. The death of Christ has been called the reconciliation of God’s wrath and love; but they need no reconciliation, they are one in God, and the perfect unity between them is expressed in Christ’s death. How he hates sin, for he dies to destroy it; and how he loves sinners, for he dies to rid them of it.
I cannot improve on Farrer, so I will let his words stand, without comment, for your delectation. I will only add that his words have helped me to rejoice in the recognition that (to return to the language of the Prayer Book) the Lord whose “wrath and indignation” we most justly provoke is “the same Lord whose property is always to have mercy.”
The Rev. Christopher Yoder serves as curate at Church of the Incarnation in Dallas. His other posts are here.
The featured image is from the Sistine Chapel, and is in the public domain.