Someone once said, “talk is cheap,” and nothing verifies that statement quite like the internet era. Through social media, websites, and blogs (like this one!), billions of people are able to talk at/to billions of other people without paying much at all for the right to speak up. One consequence of this is the fact that we have to be quite diligent in distinguishing the worthless, cheap talk from that which really has some value.
Of course, that’s especially true when it comes to Christian talk. Virtually every pastor or religious leader these days tweets or has a blog (like this one!), which means that a lot of us are talking…and that you have a lot to choose from when determining what to listen to. Your job is to discern, by God’s grace and through God’s Word, what’s worth your time and what needs to be ignored.
Along those lines, I received an email last week from a dear friend. She was forwarding a “Lenten Reflection” that she received via email. Though the overall sentiment was helpful and encouraging, I was concerned by these statements:
There is a regrettable interpretation of the cross that has, unfortunately, infected the minds of many Christians. This is the view that the bloody sacrifice of the Son on the cross was “satisfying” to the Father, an appeasement of a God infinitely angry at sinful humanity. In this reading, the crucified Jesus is like a child hurled into the fiery mouth of a pagan divinity in order to assuage its wrath.
But what ultimately refutes this twisted theology is the well-known passage from John’s Gospel: “God so loved the world, that he sent his only Son, that all who believe in him might have eternal life.” John reveals that it is not out of anger or vengeance or in a desire for retribution that the Father sends the Son, but precisely out of love. God the Father is not some pathetic divinity whose bruised personal honor needs to be restored; rather God is a parent who burns with compassion for his children who have wandered into danger.
My concern – and the reason why I’m tempted to label this as “cheap talk” – stems from the fact that this writer fails to acknowledge three crucial things about the nature of God’s wrath. As I hope you’ll see, this is an incredibly important issue, one that lies at the very heart of the gospel:
1. God’s wrath is not anger, vengeance, or retribution. Rather, God’s wrath is a natural expression of his holiness and justice; it is his intense hatred of and opposition to all sin. God acts in wrath against all sin, but not because his personal honor needs restoration. He acts in wrath against all sin because he is holy and just, and in his holiness and justice he must oppose anything and everything sinful. This wrathful opposition is therefore righteous (not angry, vengeful, etc.), and one of the good attributes that make God good. Paul says in Romans, “Because of your stubbornness and your unrepentant heart, you are storing up wrath against yourself for the day of God’s wrath, when his righteous judgment will be revealed” (2:5). God’s wrath isn’t a cosmic tantrum or an irrational reaction to offense; it reveals his righteousness.
2. God’s wrath and God’s love are not opposing forces. In fact, they are two consistent aspects of his character. This writer implies that God could not have sent Jesus to the cross to satisfy his wrath because he actually sent Jesus out of love. But that’s like saying that I cannot be from Nebraska because I’m from Lincoln – the two are not mutually exclusive. God is a God of love and a God of wrath; these are not two separate pie pieces of his character to be sliced off and removed from the whole. He is always entirely a God of wrath, and always entirely a God of love. These two dimensions of who he is don’t oppose or compete with each other. Therefore, if he does something as a God of love, he also does it as a God of wrath. Jesus went to the cross because God loved us and because the righteous wrath of God required payment. Exodus 34 shows us that God’s character can demonstrate these two attributes, in apparent tension but not in opposition: “The LORD came down in the cloud…proclaiming, ‘The LORD, the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God…maintaining love to thousands and forgiving wickedness, rebellion, and sin. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished…‘” (34:5-7).
3. The depth of God’s love is revealed on the cross because of the true reality of God’s wrath. The measure of any act of love is the cost required to demonstrate that love. God’s love is costly because, on the cross, in the ultimate expression of his love, Jesus bore God’s wrath in our place. In fact, to speak of God’s love without speaking of God’s wrath ultimately cheapens love and cheapens God. That’s why Paul makes the connection between God’s wrath and love in Ephesians 2: “Like the rest, we were by nature deserving of wrath. But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions” (2:3-5). To diminish the true reality of God’s wrath – or to deny that God’s wrath was satisfied on the cross – actually diminishes and denies the staggering extent of God’s love.
One final thought: As this writer says, God is “a parent who burns with compassion for his children who have wandered into danger.” But so is Jesus. And so is the Holy Spirit. The Son alone went to the cross to satisfy the wrath of God in our place, but it was not the will of the Father alone that it be so. Jesus willingly went to the cross, and the Holy Spirit sustained him on the way. God isn’t a divine child abuser because the child went willingly. The will of the Father is the will of the Son, which is the will of the Spirit as well. Jesus said, “No one takes [my life] from me, but I lay it down of my own accord” (John 10:18).
O, what a glorious savior!