The love of God and the wrath of God are commonly pitted against one another, particularly in the doctrine of atonement. If the cross is the demonstration of the love of God (Rom. 5:8), then how could it also be an expression of his wrath?
This dichotomy arises from a sentimentalized view of love and a caricature of wrath. In our society, love is often reduced to affection or affirmation. To love someone is either to have warm feelings toward her or to affirm her without conditions. And when people in our society think of the wrath of God, they imagine a red-faced deity with a bad temper and short fuse. This irritable God lashes out with uncontrollable rage and finds pleasure in punishing the wicked.
Such understandings of God’s love and wrath are grossly unwarranted.
Love and Anger Can Coexist
We know from our own experience that anger and love can coexist. I love my children deeply. And when their disobedience leads to harm, I have an appropriate anger that doesn’t drive out my love but comes alongside it. Further, to say love and anger can coexist doesn’t go far enough. Anger arises because of love.
Because I love my children, I’d rightfully be angry if anyone attempted to hurt them. If I didn’t have anger in this situation, one would be right to question whether I do, in fact, love my children. Anger rises and falls with love.
When we apply this to God, we begin to see how his love and wrath cohere in his perfect character. His love isn’t blind affirmation but a holy love that confronts evil from a place of care. God’s wrath isn’t a shaken can of irritability waiting to explode on otherwise innocent and unknowing people. He does respond to sin and evil with a righteous anger, but he’s slow to anger and always acts in accordance with his perfect character. The wrath of God isn’t incompatible with the love of God; it arises for the purpose of protecting that which he loves.
It’s Not His Nature
We must understand that wrath is not an attribute of God. God is love. God is holy. God is just. God is not wrath. His wrath is the rightful expression of his holy love in the face of sin and evil.
Before the foundation of the earth, the triune God had perfect love, joy, holiness, and peace. There was no wrath because there was no sin. God’s wrath arises from his holy love in opposition to wickedness. Wrath only exists where sin exists. Therefore we should uphold the priority of God’s love—and the necessity of God’s wrath to safeguard his love in a fallen world.
To speak of the wrath of God, however, moves beyond the emotion of anger to the action of righteous judgment. How can God judge and condemn people he loves? At the most basic level, to hold evil accountable is loving. To defend and protect people from injustice is loving. Yet the greatest display of judgment flowing from love is the cross of Christ.
At the cross, the wrath of God was poured out on the sin of the world (Rom. 3:25)—driven by the love of God (John 3:16). Through the wisdom of the cross, the love of God satisfies the wrath of God to redeem the people of God. This is God simply being God. It may appear to us that the cross resolves a tension in different aspects of his character. But God is who he is in all he does. The cross doesn’t resolve his character; the cross reveals it. And he confronts wickedness and evil with wrath not in spite of his love but because of it.