The Lord passed before him and proclaimed, “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children's children, to the third and the fourth generation.” (Exodus 34:6-7). When you father children and children's children, and have grown old in the land, if you act corruptly by making a carved image in the form of anything, and by doing what is evil in the sight of the Lord your God, so as to provoke him to anger, I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that you will soon utterly perish... (Deuteronomy 4:25).
Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. (Romans 5:9).
Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” (Romans 12:19).
I remember speaking with my grandfather about his church experience growing up. As he did, a phrase kept surfacing and resurfacing, “God just seemed so angry.” Therefore, he didn’t go back to church when he became an adult. Who wants to go worship a being that’s mad all the time. We don’t even want to be friends with people like that. So, why in the world are we talking about it?
The reason is simple: if we lose the anger of God, then we lose the gospel. Moses was a servant of God. No one on the earth knew God like Moses did. And, at one point, Moses asked to see God—with his eyes. So, God took Moses and hid him in a rock, allowing him a glimpse of just a small part of his greatness. As his glory passed by, the Lord introduced himself with two character traits: his exceeding love, and his just anger. God thought these two parts of his nature were so important that he didn’t mention any of his other attributes (like grace, power, glory, etc.) He said, “I am God, my love never ends, and my anger at sin is just.”
This makes us very uncomfortable. Even writing this, I know that I’m going to get negative feedback. “We shouldn’t tell people that God is angry,” we’re told. “They need to know God loves them, not that he’s angry.” It is true that people need to hear of God’s love for them in Christ. But if they do not also hear that God is angry at the seemingly limitless sin that plagues the people he loves, then we are not telling the truth. God’s love will seem sentimental. It will be nice, like your distant relative who loves you. But you’ll misunderstand love, because you misunderstand wrath.
Wrath is a biblical word that describes the just, measured opposition that God has for everything that is opposed to his will, character, and people. Sin, therefore, makes God angry. So what are we to do? Is God just a cranky, lose cannon, stomping around heaven until the day that he finally blows all the sinners away?
No. God is not like that at all. We’ve become so accustomed to seeing anger as always, only, ever wrong, that to attribute it God feels wrong too. But it’s not God’s anger that’s wrong. It’s our unwillingness to come to terms with it. God is justly angry at sin. He hates injustice. He abhors rape. He can’t stand murder. He despises theft. We hate these things too, because we still bear the fingerprints of our maker. But here’s the problem with sin—it’s inextricably linked to us. Sin isn’t just “out there.” Sin’s “in here.” We sin. We are sinners. Therefore, God’s anger at sin means he’s angry with us.
So what is God to do? How can it be that he loves us, and yet is totally, determinedly, and eternally opposed to our sin? How can God destroy sin in righteous anger and not destroy us along with it?
Answer: Jesus. In Jesus, the full force of God’s anger at human sin was expressed so that the full measure of God’s love for people could be experienced. Jesus took the anger. We get the love. This should tell us a few things...
First, God’s anger at sin is serious. It’s no laughing matter. Nor is it the subject of trite pastoral wit. It’s deadly serious, because Jesus died for it. Second, it means that God’s love for us is serious too. For, if we are in Christ, then we don’t bear God’s anger. Christ did. Now we experience his love. Finally, it means we can live in peace. Why? Because God is more than able to distribute wrath rightly. We don’t have to take vengeance for violence. We can stop the cycle of pain. The cross tells us that everyone’s sin will meet God’s anger, either on the cross of Christ or on ourselves. The choice is ours.