God’s Love and God’s Wrath

Dr. Don Carson writes the following in his outstanding article “God’s Love and God’s Wrath” published in Bibliotheca Sacra, vol. 156 (1999), pages 388–390:

The Bible speaks of the wrath of God in high-intensity language. “The Lord Almighty is mustering an army for war. … Wail, for the day of the Lord is near; it will come like destruction from the Almighty. … See, the day of the Lord is coming—a cruel day, with wrath and fierce anger—to make the land desolate and destroy the sinners within it” (Isa. 13:4, 6, 9). Even allowing for the unusual nature of language in the apocalyptic genre, Revelation 14 includes some of the most violent expressions of God’s wrath found in all literature. …

How, then, do God’s love and His wrath relate to each other?

One evangelical cliché has it that God hates the sin but loves the sinner. There is a small element of truth in these words: God has nothing but hate for the sin, but this cannot be said with respect to how God sees the sinner. Nevertheless the cliché is false on the face of it, and should be abandoned. Fourteen times in the first fifty psalms alone, the psalmists state that God hates the sinner, that His wrath is on the liar, and so forth. In the Bible the wrath of God rests on both the sin (Rom. 1:18–23) and the sinner (1:24–32; 2:5; John 3:36).

Our problem in part is that in human experience wrath and love normally abide in mutually exclusive compartments. Love drives wrath out, or wrath drives love out. We come closest to bringing them together, perhaps, in our responses to a wayward act by one of our children, but normally we do not think that a wrathful person is loving.

But this is not the way it is with God. God’s wrath is not an implacable blind rage. However emotional it may be, it is an entirely reasonable and willed response to offenses against His holiness. At the same time His love wells up amidst His perfections and is not generated by the loveliness of the loved. Thus there is nothing intrinsically impossible about wrath and love being directed toward the same individual or people at once. God in His perfections must be wrathful against His rebel image-bearers, for they have offended Him; God in His perfections must be loving toward His rebel image-bearers, for He is that kind of God. …

The reality is that the Old Testament displays the grace and love of God in experience and types, and these realities become all the clearer in the New Testament. Similarly, the Old Testament displays the righteous wrath of God in experience and types, and these realities become all the clearer in the New Testament. In other words both God’s love and God’s wrath are ratcheted up in the move from the Old Testament to the New. These themes barrel along through redemptive history, unresolved, until they come to a resounding climax in the Cross.

Do you wish to see God’s love? Look at the Cross.

Do you wish to see God’s wrath? Look at the Cross.

Read the entire article here.

Milk, Meat, and Biblical Theology

This week at work I have the privilege to sit in on Dr. D.A. Carson’s lectures on Hebrews. Carson is a brilliant theologian and a very capable exegete for a tricky book like Hebrews. With all of its complex Old Testament quotations it does require a competent biblical theologian who understands the sweep of the biblical narrative to make sense of the book. Dr. Carson is known for this type of thing.

I was particularly interested in his treatment of Hebrews 5:11–6:2:

About this [the connection between Christ and the OT figure of Melchizedek] we have much to say, and it is hard to explain, since you have become dull of hearing. For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic principles of the oracles of God. You need milk, not solid food, for everyone who lives on milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, since he is a child. But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil.

Therefore let us leave the elementary doctrine of Christ and go on to maturity, not laying again a foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith toward God, and of instruction about washings, the laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment.

Up until this point many themes in the OT have been tied to Christ including the themes of the Davidic King and God’s rest. The writer of Hebrews has been pulling quotes from several OT sources. Here in this text the writer of Hebrews begins to explain now how Melchizedek in the OT is related to Christ, but due to a lack of maturity the OT connections may be lost on the readers. In Carson’s view the milk here is not the A, B, Cs of the Christian faith, but the elemental themes of the OT, which would have been familiar to the Jewish audience. Thus, Carson says, the writer of Hebrews mandates that Christians are so maturing that they can put their Bibles together and grow from elementary ‘givens’ of the Bible and press on to see how the OT points forward to Jesus. And that is exactly what the writer has been doing up to this point, working out OT texts to show how thematic strands culminate in the Savior. And thus the Melchizedek context fits what we read in 5:11–6:2. Hebrews really makes it clear just how important the salvation-historical self-consciousness was to the early Christians.

In Carson’s view, the writer of Hebrews is not only encouraging Christians to deepen their biblical knowledge of Scripture in general, but to read the OT carefully and to trace out the many ways in which the OT trajectories find their fulfillment in the Savior. This is, at least in part, what it means to feast on steak. Today we call this biblical theology, the discipline that seeks to restore this awareness of progress along the salvation-historical line. Carson seems to prove the value of biblical theology exegetically from this passage.

So where does one begin the study of biblical theology? There is no replacement for reading and re-reading the text of the Bible, listening for the themes that echo throughout the Bible. For me one of the most helpful supplementary books is the New Dictionary of Biblical Theology (Carson recommended the book in class). Also, The Ways of Our God: An Approach to Biblical Theology by Charles H. H. Scobie is very useful, but not for its depth or for its reliability on all exegetical points. I like Scobie as an introduction to the broad sweep of OT themes that find their fulfillment in the NT.  I commend these books to you, especially if you find your diet lacking in protein.

The Bible Would Have No Plot-Line Without …

A sobering fact articulated well by D. A. Carson in his book The Gagging of God (Zondervan, 1996), page 233:

Although many have tried to contrast the “gentle Jesus, meek and mild” with the God of the Old Testament, the naked reality is that no one in the Bible is reported to talk as much about hell as Jesus. Yes, he weeps over Jerusalem, but his compassion does not prevent him from uttering the woes of Matthew 23. Peter’s sermon on the day of Pentecost is an invitation to flee the corruption of the day (Acts 2:40): the “fleeing” is appropriate terminology precisely because, in line with the inherited theology of the Old Testament prophets, that corruption will surely bring judgment. Paul can describe the gospel he preaches as that which saves men and women from the coming wrath (1 Thess. 1:10). No New Testament writer has provided a more profound, terrifying, and yet strangely compassionate account of the wrath of God than Paul in Romans 1:18–3:20. And the last book of the Bible not only depicts, in apocalyptic imagery, horrific sequences of judgments, but peaks of “the wine of God’s fury, which has been poured full strength into the cup of his wrath”; those who worship the beast “will be tormented with burning sulfur in the presence of the holy angels and of the Lamb. And the smoke of their torments rises for ever and ever” (Rev. 14:10–11).

The point that cannot be escaped is that God’s wrath is not some minor and easily dismissed peripheral element to the Bible’s plot-line. Theologically, God’s wrath is not inseparable from what it means to be God. Rather, his wrath is a function of his holiness as he confronts sin. But insofar as holiness is an attribute of God, and sin is the endemic condition of this world, this side of the Fall divine wrath cannot be ignored or evaded. It is not going too far to say that the Bible would not have a plot-line at all if there were no wrath.

Mystery/Revelation in Progressive Revelation

Helpful words on the nature of progressive revelation from D.A. Carson talking about his book–Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament (Baker, 2008, 1156 pgs)–to Collin Hansen in a CT interview (2/8/08):

“…Sometimes Christians understand progressive revelation in a fairly mechanistic or linear fashion: More truth simply gets added to the pile, to make a bigger pile of truth. But this “mystery/revelation” tension shows that often something is actually there in the Old Testament text (according to Jesus and his apostles) that was not seen until the coming of Jesus made it clear. The most obvious example is the fact that interpreters of Scripture before the coming of Jesus did not happily put together the Old Testament promises of a Davidic king with Old Testament suffering-servant passages to anticipate a king who suffers, a king who would reign from a cross.”

Free D. A. Carson Books

Andy Naselli today posted a comprehensive bibliography of D. A. Carson’s writings. He also links to seven free PDF books. Enjoy:

  • Letters Along the Way: A Novel of the Christian Life (Crossway, 1993)
  • Holy Sonnets of the Twentieth Century (Baker, 1994)
  • For the Love of God: A Daily Companion for Discovering the Riches of God’s Word, Vol. 1. (Crossway, 1998)
  • For the Love of God: A Daily Companion for Discovering the Riches of God’s Word, Vol. 2. (Crossway, 1999)
  • The Difficult Doctrine of the Love of God (Crossway, 2000)
  • Love in Hard Places (Crossway, 2002)
  • Memoirs of an Ordinary Pastor: The Life and Reflections of Tom Carson (Crossway, 2008)