Knowing God, Chapters 15 and 16: God’s Wrath, Goodness, and Severity

Knowing GodWe’re continuing to read Knowing God by J. I. Packer along with Tim Challies’ Reading Classics Together Series. This week we are in chapters 15 and 16.

Chapter 16 deals with “The Wrath of God,” not the most popular subject today. As mentioned from a previous chapter, people like to think of God as grandfatherly and benign. But the Bible presents wrath as a part of God’s character, so it is wise to see what it has to say about it.

Packer defines terms and then sketches out some of the Biblical references, noting that there are more verses about God’s “anger, fury, and wrath than there are about His love and tenderness” (p. 149). “The Bible labors the point that just as God is good to those who trust Him, so He is terrible to those who do not” (p. 149).

Some object to God as displaying wrath because it seems “unworthy” of Him, or like a loss of control. But His wrath is not like human wrath. “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. God is only angry when anger is called for…Would a God who took as much pleasure in evil as He did in good be a good God? Would a God who did not react adversely to evil in His world be morally perfect?” (p. 151).

“God’s wrath in the Bible is always judicial–that is, it is the wrath of the Judge, administering justice” (p. 151). It isn’t arbitrary or capricious. It’s also “something which people choose for themselves. Before hell is an experience inflicted by God, it is a state for which a person opts by retreating from the light which God shines in his heart to lead him to Himself…(John 3:18-19)” (p. 152).

Packer then traces the wrath of God through the book of Romans, discussing the meaning and revelation of it as well as deliverance from it. Thankfully God has made provision for us to be delivered from His wrath by repenting of our sins and trusting in Christ, who took our sins on Himself at the cross, for salvation. “Much more then, being now justified by his blood, we shall be saved from wrath through him” (Romans 5:9).

The title of Chapter 16 comes from Romans 11:22a: “Behold therefore the goodness and severity of God.” Packer begins by discussing how some of the “muddle-headedness” about God and what it means to have faith in Him have come about: people follow their own ideas instead of seeking what God reveals in His Word; people think all religions are equal and “draw their ideas about God from pagan as well as Christian sources” (p. 159); personal sinfulness has been downplayed, so people don’t see the need and aren’t open to correction; and, as has been mentioned on the chapters dealing with God’s justice and wrath, people “disassociate the thought of God’s goodness from that of His severity” (p. 159).

Packer then does one of the things I believe he is best at: presenting in distilled form an overview of of both God’s goodness and severity, which I could not begin to reproduce here without quoting half the chapter. But he says God’s severity “denotes God’s decisive withdrawal of His goodness from those who have spurned it (p. 163). “But God is not impatient in His severity; just the reverse. He is ‘slow to anger’… and ‘longsuffering'” patient and forbearing (p. 165). And he has done everything possible to bring people to Himself: “The Bible shows you a Savior who suffered and died in order that we sinners might be reconciled to God; Calvary is the measure of the goodness of God” (p. 165).

Thoughts about God’s wrath

I’ve come across various reactions to God’s wrath in the Bible from various quarters and wanted to set down some of my own thoughts about it.

Sometimes people seem to see a dichotomy in the Bible between a seemingly angry God in the Old Testament and the loving, patient, and merciful Jesus of the New. But they are not two different Gods: they are part of the same Trinity. The Bible has much to say about God’s longsuffering, mercy, and lovingkindness even in the Old Testament, and Jesus rebuked the disciples for unbelief, had some pretty harsh words for the Pharisees, overthrew moneychangers in the temple, and Revelation says in the future judgement people will cry out for rocks to fall on them to try to protect themselves from the wrath of the Lamb of God.

God’s wrath shows first of all His justice. Just looking at a few verses about God’s wrath shows that He unleashes it against those who knowingly commit sin or worship false gods. People seem to see only His wrath when He punished the Israelites in the wilderness but forget the longsuffering He showed: He miraculously delivered them out of Egypt in a way only He could have that showed Israelites and Egyptians alike that that He was the one true God and all of their gods were false and helpless (many of the ten plagues had to do with a specific god Egypt worshiped), He miraculously delivered them again when they were caught between the Egyptians and the Red Sea, He miraculously provided food and water for them. They complained at the outset and He did not do anything but deliver them and provide for them. But instead of getting to know Him, to trust that He cared for them and would provide for them, they continued to complain and even wanted to go back to what He had delivered them from. He was patient with their complaining until they got to a place they should have known better.

His wrath also shows His righteousness, holiness, and love. God’s jealousy against false gods is not the same as that of an insecure boyfriend: other gods will lead people to hell. Sin will cause great harm to those who indulge in it and those whom they influence.

His wrath shows the magnitude of sin. The fact that we don’t see people being demonstrably punished in the same way these days does not mean God feels any differently about sin.

But the good news is that though “the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who hold the truth in unrighteousness,” (Romans 1:18), “But God commendeth his love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. Much more then, being now justified by his blood, we shall be saved from wrath through him.” (Romans 5:8-9).

In a chapter of Jesus, Keep Me Near the Cross: Experiencing the Passion and Power of Easter titled “The Most Important Word in the Universe,” Raymond C. Ortlund, Jr., says:

The first thing to say is that the wrath of God is a part of the gospel. It’s the part we tend to ignore. Yet we don’t mind our own anger. There is a lot of anger in us, a lot of righteous indignation. Listen to talk radio. In our culture it’s acceptable to vent our moral fervor at one another…. But the thought of God being angry-well, who does he think he is?

Great question. Who is God? He’s the most balanced personality imaginable. He is normal. His wrath is not an irrational outburst. God’s wrath is worthy of God. It is his morally appropriate, carefully considered, justly intense reaction to our evil demeaning his worth and destroying our own capacity to enjoy him. God cares about that. He is not a passive observer. He’s involved emotionally.

The Bible says, “God is love” (1 John 4:8, 16). It never says, “God is anger.” But it couldn’t say that God is love without his anger, because God’s anger shows how serious his love is.

His wrath is the solemn determination of a doctor cutting away the cancer that’s killing his patient.

In human religions, it’s the worshipper who placates the offended deity with rituals and sacrifices and bribes. But in the gospel, it is God Himself who provides the offering.

He detests our evil with all the intensity of the divine  personality. If you want to know what your sin deserves from God, …Look at the man on the cross — tormented, gasping, bleeding. Take a long, thoughtful look…God was saying something about his perfect emotions toward your sin. He was displaying his wrath.

The God you have offended doesn’t demand your blood; he gives his own in Jesus Christ.

 A longer excerpt, though unfortunately not the whole chapter is here.

There is much more that could be said about this subject, and I’m debating with myself  about whether I should go ahead and post this or wait for more reading and study. But I think I’ll go ahead.

(See also How Tim Keller Made Peace With the Wrath of God).