But some will ask, “How can that be? Aren’t those two qualities mutually exclusive?” The answer is “No, they are not necessarily antithetical.” We have to remember that we are dealing with a being who is infinitely greater than we mortals. God is perfectly capable of possessing both qualities in a perfectly balanced personality.
The Bible is very plain about the wrath of God with numerous mentions of it in both Old and New Testaments. For example, the prophet Nahum wrote of God’s wrath against Nineveh…
“The LORD is a jealous and avenging God; the LORD is avenging and wrathful; the LORD takes vengeance on his adversaries and keeps wrath for his enemies.” (Nahum 1:2).
Paul makes reference to the wrath of God eight times in the book of Romans in which the grace of God is a dominant theme. The first of these references leaves no doubt as to the nature of God as a God of wrath.
“For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth.” (Romans 1:18).
But what do we mean when we speak of the wrath of God? Albert Barnes says of this verse;
The word rendered “wrath” properly denotes that earnest appetite or desire by which we seek anything, or an intense effort to obtain it. And it is particularly applied to the desire which a man has to take vengeance who is injured, and who is enraged. It is thus synonymous with revenge. (eSword).
But of the wrath of God he adds;
“…it is clear that when we think of the word as applicable to him, it must be divested of everything like human passion, and especially of the passion of revenge. As he cannot be injured by the sins of people… he has no motive for vengeance properly so called, and it is one of the most obvious rules of interpretation that we are not to apply to God passions and feelings which, among us, have their origin in evil.” (ibid).
In the context of Romans 1:18 I think it should be obvious that Paul is speaking of God’s displeasure with the sins of men and his determination to do what is right in regard to that issue.
But what is the right thing to do about the sins of mankind? The first and most obvious thing God has done is to provide a way for sins to be forgiven. This he did by sending his Son to atone for sin. Man in sin is estranged from God. God is holy and sin cannot abide in his presence. Through Jesus, sin is taken away, forgiven and its guilt wiped away. Through faith in Jesus, man can live in fellowship with God as though he had never sinned.
But what about those who refuse God’s gracious offer of pardon? What about those who prefer to continue living in sin even though God has shown his love for them, provided the means for man’s redemption and tenderly and lovingly calls men to himself? Are they to receive God’s blessing of eternal life with those who are faithful to him? Or have they EARNED something else? (See: Romans 6:23). Have they not chosen to receive the just compensation of their disobedience?
When people choose sin they choose to live in defiance of God’s law which is the perfect standard for human life. To do so is to deny God who gave that law. It is, in effect, to say that God and his law do not matter to them. To such as these it is as though God does not exist. People cannot live in this way without there being serious consequences for their actions.
God’s wrath is simply his grievous displeasure at the defiance of man against himself. That displeasure is demonstrated by his passing the sentence of death upon those who have chosen death. His wrath is his judicial motivation and is fully in accord with his righteous character.
God is the lawgiver. That law is based on his own perfection. Man is called to live in accord with his law. When we strive for that perfection, God is pleased with our efforts, no matter how imperfectly we achieve that goal. For such as do strive to live up to his expectations for us he provides grace and forgiveness based on our faith in his unique Son.
But for those who disregard and disobey his law, the consequence is death. They have rejected the life he offers through the knowledge of him and his will. They have chosen the way of death – of eternal separation from him and his love. It is death they have chosen and it is death they deserve. By God’s wrath they will receive what they have chosen.
One of the reasons for the writing of the Bible is to warn sinners of the “wrath to come.” This is also one of the reasons for which God gave law to man. Law identifies sin and shows how terrible sin is. In affirming that the law was good, Paul described the legitimate use of the law. He said…
“What then shall we say? That the law is sin? By no means! Yet if it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin. For I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, ‘You shall not covet.’” (Romans 7:7).
“Did that which is good, then, bring death to me? By no means! It was sin, producing death in me through what is good, in order that sin might be shown to be sin, and through the commandment might become sinful beyond measure.” (Romans 7:13).
The knowledge that the law of God brings of the true nature of sin and what it does to all of mankind should cause the deepest revulsion of sin that we can know. Sin is horribly destructive to those who practice it, to our loved ones and to our society. It divides our hearts, our minds, our families, friends, neighbors and communities. Ultimately it is that which divides us from God. This is so because God cannot tolerate sin in his holy presence. God cannot go against his own nature and receive into fellowship with himself those who are polluted with sin.
Neither will he deny man the right of self-determination. He will honor our choices – either to live for him and live or to deny him and die. God cannot go against his nature as the righteous law-giver. His law would have no meaning if he made exceptions to it. All law has penalties attached – a price to be paid for disobedience to that law. Someone has said that God gave Moses the ten commandments – not the ten suggestions. But that would be what law is if there were not penalties attached in case of disobedience.
The fact of the matter is, however, is that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” (Romans 3:23). What that means is that everyone falls short of the ultimate standard of perfection – the glory or likeness of God. Who lives up to the standard that is God’s own righteousness? No one! And failing to live up to that standard we fall under the condemnation of the law. Because of this we deserve death. That is what the law of God demands. We become subject to the wrath of God!
So how do we escape God’s righteous judgment? This is where the grace of God comes into play. We cannot save ourselves. Once we have committed one sin we prove we are not worthy of life, but of condemnation, but God stepped in, provided the solution to our dilemma by allowing Jesus to take our sins on himself, becoming the “propitiation” – the atoning sacrifice – for our sins. He answered the demand of the law that there be death for those who were guilty of disobedience to the law. He took the penalty of death for us so that we would not suffer death for our own sin.
The only appropriate response to God’s magnanimous offer is an obedient faith. That faith will not attempt to quibble with God over what human beings see as “necessary” and/or “non-essential” obedience as some do. Real faith – saving faith – gladly obeys whatever God commands without asking why. Real faith will not allow itself to be encumbered with a load of humanly devised “requirements” for fellowship with men. This kind of faith that trusts God for the results he has promised removes from us the cowering terror that comes from sin and replaces it with a calm assurance before the one who is the judge of the whole world because we have been forgiven by his grace through his mercy and love.