Are anger and wrath attributes of God? Part one

Cross_lightning_loveBecause my teaching focus is on the Father’s love, sometimes I will get accused of giving people an unbalanced view of God.

One of the objections that keeps coming up goes something like this… “All this talk about the Father’s love…what about His anger and wrath? After all, these are attributes of God, too.”

Actually, I don’t think they are.  While God’s anger and wrath apparently seems to show up a lot in Scripture, especially in the Old Testament, it doesn’t necessarily follow that these  are among His attributes.

I would like to give you my take on this, but understand that I’m in no way dogmatic on my position, nor do I expect you to agree with me. But I would ask that you consider what I have to share, and that you might faithfully question what you’ve believed about this up to this point.

Talking about the attributes of God is a vast and well-worn theological subject that goes far beyond what I can share here, so I will attempt to keep it as basic and to the point as possible. But I also realize that I will no doubt create questions in your mind about how we should then understand anger and wrath in the context of God’s interactions with us in Scripture. Because of these things, I will need to cover this subject in two parts.

With that said, let’s get started.

The dictionary defines an attribute as a quality or feature regarded as a characteristic or inherent part of someone or something. This will be helpful to our understanding.

The Westminster Shorter Catechism’s definition of God is said to be an enumeration of his attributes: “God is a Spirit, infinite, eternal, and unchangeable in his being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness, and truth.”

Interestingly, the Bible doesn’t seem to devote any space to explicitly defining God’s attributes, other than to imply that “His invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead…” (Rom.1:20)

I say “imply” because there is no Greek word for “attributes” in Romans 1:20. It was added by the translators. But we will go with this description.

So, we need to ask the question. Does anger and wrath fit these descriptions of God’s character and inherent nature? There are theologians and scholars, like A.W. Pink, who insisted that wrath does fit as one of God’s many attributes. But I think that Reformed theologian, Dr. Sinclair Ferguson, can give us more clarity on the subject (emphasis mine):

“Strictly speaking, wrath is not an attribute of God. For something to be an attribute of God, it has to be something that God exercises before all worlds. It would be more appropriate to say that the wrath of God is the manifestation of the holiness of God in the context of the sinfulness of man. So, within the Trinitarian relationship, that holiness is expressed among the members of the Trinity, but not wrath.”

In other words, whatever is not expressed between the Father, Son and Spirit within the Triune nature of God, before and apart from His creation, is NOT an attribute of God. This is why my position is that wrath and anger cannot be said to be attributes of God.

What does this mean? It means that simply going through the Bible and coming up with a compartmentalized list of things pertaining to God does not necessarily define His essence and character—who He is at the core of His being.

I believe Scripture tells us that God has only one unchanging attitude toward humanity. That one attitude is LOVE. To know God is to know love (1 John 4:7-16). All of His other attributes, like His holiness (which can be defined as His “altogether otherness.”), His justice, His infinite knowledge and power, flow from and are subsumed in His unchanging love.

We know that Scripture does explicitly tell us that God IS love, and we know that He eternally expresses love between the Father and Son and Spirit “before all worlds” (John 17:24). While this is true about love, God does not eternally express anger and wrath within the Godhead. He is not angry or wrathful apart from His creation, therefore these cannot be attributes of God.

So then, how are we to look at all the verses about God’s anger and wrath since they’re all over the Bible? Ignore them? Tell people God’s not mad anymore? No, that would be scripturally dishonest. We seek to understand this language in the context of God’s love,  not by trying to “balance God out,” attributing anger and wrath to His character or essence.

And we will look at how we might do that next time.

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About Mel Wild

God's favorite (and so are you), a son and a father, happily married to the same beautiful woman for 36 years. We have three incredible adult children. My passion is pursuing the Father's heart in Christ and giving it away to others. My favorite pastime is being iconoclastic and trailblazing the depths of God's grace. I'm also senior pastor of Cornerstone Church in Wisconsin.
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9 Responses to Are anger and wrath attributes of God? Part one

  1. Lance says:

    Thanks Mel. It is like an annoying fly that just won’t go away. I think the problem is us fallen humans. Religion needs wrath to manipulate. The offended need wrath for vengeance. Governments need wrath as an excuse. Prophets need wrath to be heard. And on and on. God is good to go. He doesn’t need to hurt anyone since He is unoffendable and quite secure in His loving self. When we fight against that raging river of love it can feel pretty wrathful…just saying.

    • Mel Wild says:

      Yup, retributive justice (revenge, punishment) appeals to the unrenewed mind of man more than restorative justice. Man, like fallen Adam, sees God as angry and wrathful and expects punishment, creating fear and an illusion of separation from God. His perfect love casts this lie out! (1 John 4:17-18).

      I can understand, though, why so many assume that God is wrathful and angry all the time. It seems to be what the Bible says in several places. The problem is, while taking a simplistic understanding of these passages saves the appearance of them in theory, it creates untenable contradictions in actuality about the nature of God. But worse than the theological fallout is the relational dysfunction this creates between us and God. After all, who wants to run into the arms of someone who seems to fly off the handle at the slightest infractions! This is why so many Christians keep God at arms length, and intimacy with God is so foreign to them, even though they love Him. It’s sad, really.

      When we say “God is love” with this caveat (but He’s also wrathful and angry), we create all kinds of cognitive dissonance that seriously damages our view of God and of our relationship with Him. This is why I bring these things up, not just to cause trouble but to get us out of our fallen view of God.

      I’m hoping someday we’ll come out from behind the bushes and actually let Him love us completely, without all this religious baggage (Finally use the Holy fly-swatter to that sacred fly, to use your analogy!)
      Thanks, as always, for your comments.

  2. Brother Mel, years ago I was sitting in a church service, I was in my very early twenties or late teens and my view of the Father had always been a stern Father holding a big stick in one hand and beating it against the other just waiting for you to do something wrong. Then all of a sudden, that image disappeared and right in the middle of service, there was a loving Father beckoning me towards Himself, with His arms outstretched just waiting for me to run to His arms! It reminded me of artwork that I later seen by Danny Hahlbohm, except at that time I had never seen anything like it. I just wept and wept there in the middle of service. It truly changed my life and the way I viewed our relationship with the Lord!
    God bless you for this much needed article.

    • Mel Wild says:

      Awesome testimony of the Father’s love. Roland. I had an absent father growing so my view of my heavenly Father was nothing at all…just Jesus. I had similar encounters that changed all that. I few I shared in my book. It’s transformational, to say the least! Thanks for sharing that. Blessings brother.

  3. This apparent duplicity in the character of God is a constant complaint of those outside the faith, and even of the uneducated within the church. The division of testaments gives even more credence to the assumption that the Divine is either one or the other: vengefully waiting to pounce upon whomever He chooses, or universally loving regardless of His creation’s reaction to His benevolence. There’s a bit of truth in both, as you know. “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy [etc.]” (Ex. 33:19) and “For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ all shall be made alive.” (1Cor. 15:22). I commend you for a straightforward presentation of this difficult subject. You did a great job and I always appreciate your insights.

    • Mel Wild says:

      Thanks Michael. Much appreciated. It’s true, a literal take on some passages makes God look duplicitous,or just plain evil, which people like Dawkins pick up on. That’s why we need a better, more consistent understanding.
      Blessings.

  4. Sunil says:

    Sir , What about Grace which is an attribute of God ?? If God is Gracious before creation , to whom does He exhibited His Grace ??

    • Mel Wild says:

      Jesus came full of grace and truth (John 1:14-16). He didn’t become gracious in time and space. Grace is the power to live God’s life. Certainly, this empowering grace existed between the Father and Son and Spirit apart from creation.

    • Mel Wild says:

      By the way, thank you for your question. Blessings.

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