The Lord Jesus was a great storyteller. One of His stories was about a fig tree growing in a vineyard. As we might expect, the owner of the property kept coming to look for figs from his tree, but he never found any. Finally he said to the keeper of his vineyard, “Behold, for three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree without finding any. Cut it down! Why does it even use up the ground?” (Luke 13:7) The keeper of the vineyard requested a little more time, at least another year to dig around the tree and fertilize it. There was nothing to lose. If it bore fruit, everyone would be happy. If not, he could cut it down then.
Jesus told that story to illustrate God’s long-suffering with sinners. He delays His judgment and gives them one privilege after another, one revelation of Himself after another, one opportunity to repent after another. Then, as we might expect, He looks for the fruit of a changed life that provides the evidence of eternal salvation. But He does not wait forever. If people go on disregarding His patient and gracious offer of salvation, eventually the ax falls. “Cut it down,” He says. “Let the full force of My anger be directed against these unrepentant sinners.”
That sounds rather severe. And it is! God can be severe. “Behold then the kindness and severity of God,” warned the Apostle Paul (Romans 11:22). We all like to talk about God’s kindness, His love, His grace, His mercy, and His long-suffering, but most of us choose not to say very much about His severity. That word means literally “a cutting off.” It has to do with retribution—strictly exacting the full penalty of the law, righteously judging sin with perfect justice. It introduces us to another inescapable side of God’s character, what Scripture calls His wrath.
The first thing that usually comes to mind when we hear the term wrath is violent anger and temper, and somehow that does not sound very becoming for a loving God. We get a little embarrassed for Him when he says to the nation Israel, “And My anger will be kindled, and I will kill you with the sword” (Exodus 22:24); or “So it will be a reproach, a reviling, a warning and an object of horror to the nations who surround you, when I execute judgments against you in anger, wrath, and raging rebukes” (Ezekiel 5:15). Some of us have a secret desire to get rid of those passages and somehow hide the fact that God gets angry. But God does not try to hide it. He is not ashamed of it. He is perfectly willing to make His wrath known (Romans 9:22). In fact, He says more about His wrath than He does about His love.
Attempts have been made to dilute the Biblical doctrine of wrath, but a study of the Scriptural words that are used for wrath hardly permits us to do that. The most common word is the one that makes up half of the word long-suffering, the word that means nose, face, or anger. God’s anger is pictured symbolically as smoke pouring from His nostrils. The Psalmist wrote,
Then the earth shook and quaked; And the foundations of the mountains were trembling And were shaken, because He was angry. Smoke went up out of His nostrils, And fire from His mouth devoured; Coals were kindled by it (Psalm 18:7-8).
That sounds rather foreboding. Other words for wrath in the Old Testament portray the idea of fire, heat, burning, fury, and rage. Again the Psalmist wrote,
Therefore the LORD heard and was full of wrath, And a fire was kindled against Jacob, And anger also mounted against Israel (Psalm 78:21).
That does not sound like something we can explain away as a mild slap on the wrist accompanied by a timid rebuke, “I really would rather you didn’t do that.” God can actually get heated up, and if we want to know Him in truth, we need to understand this side of His nature.
God’s wrath is not something limited to the Old Testament. There are two primary New Testament words for wrath. Paul applied one of them to God (orge) when he warned the Ephesians that the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience (Ephesians 5:6). The word he used referred originally to any passion or impulse, but it came to mean especially anger, the most powerful of all the emotions, an intense feeling of displeasure. A second word for wrath (thumos) is used of God only in the book of the Revelation (14:10,19; 15:1,7; 16:1,19; 19:15). It refers to a sudden passionate outburst in contrast to the settled and lingering frame of mind. But the point is, both words are used of God; the passionate eruption as well as the settled feelings. The New Testament does not hesitate to expose this side of God’s character.
Is it wrong for God to get angry like that? On the contrary, it is as much a part of His glory and perfection as is His holiness, His justice, or His love. In fact, it is required by all three. Sin is an outrage against God’s holiness; His justice requires that He punish it. And His love for His people demands that He destroy sin because it threatens their well-being. Wrath is God acting in love to destroy sin, to purge His universe of what is detrimental to its best interests. God cannot love what is good without hating what is evil and moving decisively against it, any more than a parent can love his child without acting quickly and ruthlessly to destroy a wild animal that threatens the life of that child. God’s wrath is the perfect response of His perfect being to that which poses a danger to His children.
One of the reasons we have such a problem accepting God’s wrath is because we liken it to our own. When we lose our temper and shout at our spouse or our children, we know it is sin. We feel remorse and shame over it after we have cooled down. So how then can a holy God be angry and still maintain His sinlessness? God’s wrath is much different from ours.
For one thing, His wrath is not selfish like ours. We usually get angry and bitter at people because they attack our self-esteem, frustrate our attempts to reach some personal goal, threaten us with some personal loss, inconvenience us, treat us unjustly, or fail to meet our needs. God is sovereign, omnipotent, totally self-sufficient; He does what He pleases and has all things in His control. Nobody can frustrate His goals or threaten His well being, so He has no reason to become selfishly angry and no reason to get bitter or resentful. Our anger is usually expressed for our own benefit—to let off steam, to let everybody know how much we have been hurt, to assert our rights, or to get our own way. God is perfect love and so acts for the good of others. His wrath never is selfishly motivated.
Another major difference between God’s wrath and ours is that His is always in perfect control. While He acts firmly and decisively, He never acts with unbridled or unrestrained emotion. He does not lose His temper, rant and rave, say foolish things, throw pots and pans, put His fist through walls, or do any of the other senseless things we may do when we get angry. While from man’s point of view it may look as though His actions are sudden and unpredictable, He is unchangeable. Every expression of His wrath was known from eternity past and is part of His perfect plan. Though it may seem to be violent from man’s perspective, it is actually the settled opposition of His holiness to sin, and the judicial administration of His justice toward sinners. It may be described as hot, fiery, fierce, and furious. But, unlike ours, it is never out of control.
The major reason we try to cover up God’s wrath is probably because we have little understanding of the absolute, awesome holiness of His nature and, consequently, have little consciousness of the contemptible, despicable character of our own sin. We see no need for God to get angry. The prevailing opinion of the day seems to be, “So what’s a little sin? Why should God get so heated up about that?” A knowledge of His holiness would help us understand the significance and the necessity of His wrath. An old graying dress shirt may look white enough until it is placed beside a brand-new one. Then it may look so grubby and grimy that we decide it must be relegated to the rag bag. Just so, our sin may seem acceptable until we get a glimpse of God’s perfect holiness. Then we begin to understand why He finds it necessary to take such drastic action. But against what does He take that action? Against what, specifically, is His wrath revealed?
The Apostle Paul went straight to the heart of this issue when he said, “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who suppress the truth in unrighteousness” (Romans 1:18). God does not hide His wrath. He reveals it, that is, He discloses it, brings it to light, makes it known. He expresses it, not in violent, uncontrolled explosions as we have already seen, but nevertheless by definite, observable acts. Whenever it is expressed, it is always against ungodliness and unrighteousness. Ungodliness involves irreverence, impiety, and blatant disregard for His will. Unrighteousness involves any kind of wickedness, wrongdoing, or injustice. In other words, God’s wrath, unlike ours, is always expressed against sin, and particularly the sin of those who suppress His truth by willful wickedness and so do moral damage to others.
When we read through the Old Testament we see some of the ways God revealed His wrath—pestilence, death, exile, the destruction of cities and nations, and the denial of privileges. The Psalmist described the hardhearted Israelites who provoked God in the wilderness and were denied entrance into the Promised Land. He quoted God as saying,
Therefore I swore in My anger,
Truly they shall not enter into My rest (Psalm 95:11).
It was God’s anger or wrath revealed against their stubborn, willful disbelief that kept them from enjoying what they might have had. To allow them to enter the land with their rebellious attitudes would probably have brought them more unhappiness than wandering in the wilderness brought them, so even in wrath His mercy was evident. Just so, those who refuse to accept God’s offer of Heaven by faith in the death of His Son will suffer eternal wrath. The holiness of Heaven would be agony for them in their unregenerate state.
Another way we see God’s wrath revealed is by observing the earthly life of God incarnate, the Lord Jesus Christ. There were occasions when He was clearly angry. The first one was at the outset of His public ministry. He had come to Jerusalem for the Passover and found the temple of God invaded by profiteers who were taking advantage of the people and exploiting the things of God for personal gain. So He made a scourge of cords and drove them out of the temple, along with their sheep and oxen, pouring out the coins of the moneychangers and overturning their tables (John 2:15-16). It was an unmistakable expression of anger, as His disciples themselves testified. They reflected on a passage in the psalms about the zeal of God’s house consuming Him (John 2:17; cf. Psalm 69:9). That word zeal is a word of passion and indignation. God gets angry when people use spiritual things for personal profit, whether it be the businessman who uses his church affiliation to fatten his bank account or the preacher who uses his position to enhance his image. Eventually God does something about it.
Jesus got angry on another occasion as well, this time in the synagogue at Capernaum. A man was there with a paralyzed hand, and the Pharisees were watching to see if Jesus would heal on the sabbath day so they could find some excuse to condemn Him. “And after looking around at them with anger, grieved at their hardness of heart, He said to the man, ‘Stretch out your hand.’ And he stretched it out, and his hand was restored” (Mark 3:5). Jesus was angry because of their spiritual insensitivity and utter lack of concern about the man’s need. This kind of pharisaism probably angers God as much as anything else—maintaining the outward traditions of religion, clinging tenaciously to religious rules and regulations, but lacking a life-changing faith that shows itself in compassion toward people in need. Eventually He does something about it. This unbelieving nation was removed from its privileged position and scattered to the ends of the earth. “Cut it down,” God said, revealing His wrath.
The revelation of God’s wrath has been observed throughout human history in a myriad of ways, but Scripture indicates that we have not yet seen the worst. God is still restraining His wrath to a large degree, giving men an opportunity to trust Him. But the day is coming when He will restrain it no longer.
Several passages in Scripture speak of “the wrath to come.” John the Baptist used that phrase when he saw the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism. “You brood of vipers, who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” (Matthew 3:7) Evidently a day is coming when God’s wrath is going to be revealed in an unparalleled way.
Paul also spoke of a future day of wrath: “But because of your stubbornness and unrepentant heart you are storing up wrath for yourself in the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God” (Romans 2:5). People with hard and impenitent hearts are accumulating wrath against themselves for that day. It sounds as though there is a storehouse where all the wrath that sin deserves is piling up. God’s long-suffering is presently restraining it, but someday the storehouse will be full, the doors will burst open, and all that accumulated wrath will pour out. It is as though a great dam is holding back the angry waters of retribution. But a day of wrath is coming when the dam will break and the waters will be released.
When will that day be? It seems significant that when the seals of judgment are opened, in the book of the Revelation, the inhabitants of the earth cry out to the rocks and mountains, “Fall on us and hide us from the presence of Him who sits on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb; for the great day of their wrath has come; and who is able to stand?” (Revelation 6:16-17). That time, known in the Old Testament as the time of Jacob’s trouble (Jeremiah 30:7 KJV), called by Jesus a time of great tribulation (Matthew 24:21), is here described as the great day of God’s wrath. The meek and mild Lamb of God, who willingly submitted Himself to the abuse and humiliation of men at His first coming, is going to become the instrument of God’s wrath. The wrath of the Lamb will be so fierce that men will endeavor to flee from His presence and seek death rather than face Him.
The chapters that follow in the Revelation describe unprecedented wrath. The great majority of the earth’s population is killed in calamities such as the world has never seen. And references to the wrath of God keep turning up in this account (e.g. 11:18; 14:10,19; 15:1,7; 16:1,19).Then the Son of God Himself appears as John described in prophetic vision: “And from His mouth comes a sharp sword, so that with it He may smite the nations; and He will rule them with a rod of iron; and He treads the wine press of the fierce wrath of God, the Almighty” (Revelation 19:15). The cup of iniquity is full, the grapes of wrath are ripe, and now God crushes them in awesome judgment. Those who have rejected His grace feel the terror of His wrath.
But the end is not yet. The scene changes to a great white throne where the unbelieving dead of all the ages have been raised to stand before God for judgment. “And if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire” (Revelation 20:15). The lake of fire, where there shall be torment day and night for ever and ever (Revelation 20:10), is the ultimate expression of God’s wrath. Some have wondered how God can be glorified through people suffering in the lake of fire for eternity. We cannot deny that it will display the glory of His holiness, His righteousness, and His justice.
Punishment in the lake of fire seems to be much more severe than most human crimes deserve, however. We cringe at the thought of it. Yet the violation of God’s infinitely holy nature demands an infinite penalty. Beyond that, Scripture assures us that eternal wrath is something men choose for themselves. They have expressed their preference for living apart from God by rejecting the light He has given them. As we have seen, God allows them to have what they prefer. But there is no reason why anyone should have to suffer God’s wrath. Deliverance is available.
In perfect, infinite, unselfish love, God has laid the curse of His offended holiness on His own Son who willingly bore it for us (cf. 2 Corinthians 5:21; Galatians 3:13). He provided the sacrifice by which His holiness could be satisfied and His wrath avoided. The Apostle Paul explained it: “But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. Much more then, having now been justified by His blood, we shall be saved from the wrath of God through Him” (Romans 5:8-9). Because the infinitely holy Son of God died in our place and paid for our sins, we may be forgiven, declared righteous, and made acceptable to God. We can be delivered from the awful wrath that has been stored up because of our sin. That is the essence of the gospel.
When the Thessalonians heard Paul preach that message, they received it and were delivered from the wrath to come (1 Thessalonians 1:6,10). God is willing to do the same for us. Those who acknowledge their sin and put their trust in Christ’s death for forgiveness are no longer destined for wrath, “but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Thessalonians 5:9). There is no wrath for the child of God—only for those who reject His Son. “He who believes in the Son has eternal life; but he who does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him” (John 3:36).
Some are certain they have nothing to worry about since they have escaped God’s wrath thus far. They are sure that God, if there is a God, does not care about their sin, and they can live as they please without fear of wrath. But that is a dangerous delusion. Donald Grey Barnhouse told the story of some godly farmers who, when they drove up to their little country church one summer Sunday morning, observed the owner of the farm acres across the road busily plowing his field. He was careful to plow the portion immediately adjacent to the church during services, flaunting his disregard for God. After the harvest he wrote a letter to the editor of the local weekly newspaper boasting that he had the highest yield per acre of any farm in the county even though he had done most of his work on Sundays. He asked the editor how the Christians could explain that. The editor answered with one brief but incisive comment: “God does not settle His accounts in the month of October.”
Do not mistake God’s long-suffering for lenience with your sin. He patiently waits for you to repent of your sins and turn to Him in faith. If you refuse, you will one day experience His wrath. The choice is yours.
If you are a believer, thank God right now for laying on His Son all the wrath which your sin deserves.
Determine that by God’s grace you will take advantage of every opportunity you can to share His message of salvation, so that others as well may be delivered from the wrath to come.