In our both-and series, this will be the most challenging pair to reconcile and perhaps the most important to our practical spiritual lives in Christ. One of the most important both-ands of the Christian faith is the wrath AND mercy of God.
If there is a pairing that can cause confusion or provide stunning clarity regarding how to interpret certain Biblical ideas and themes, and also how to interpret God’s providence in our lives, it is this pairing. So friends, my big admonition here is this: please embrace a God that has both the characteristic of wrath and mercy in his divine attributes! If you do not, if you will not, you will not have a true picture of God. You will end up with a god of your making. If you have a god only of mercy (and love) and no wrath (and judgment), you will have a permissive, uncle of a god. He may be displeased at times but he will chuckle your sin and brokeness away and leave it for someone else to deal with, if at all. If you only have a god of wrath, you will serve a tyrant, a capricious Zues-like creation that will make you disdain authority and any concept of law.
Start with the Bible. All of it. Both OT and NT. First, note that both testaments are full of wrath and mercy. In fact, there is more intense language of judgment in the NT, and on the lips of Jesus, than the OT. Go ahead and check me on that. The NT is the testament that emphasizes wrath, for in it the temporal and geographically limited wrath spoken of the in the OT becomes eternal and universal, starting with Jesus’ proclamations (Matt 5:29; Luke 12:5). Jesus was far more intense than any OT prophet! Paul is quite gentle compared with Jesus. The end of the Bible, the part we really like, because it points us to heaven, is all about the culmination of God’s wrath up evil, sin, and sinners, and his mercy and redemption toward those he saved through Jesus. Rev 19 is a beautiful chapter, like a painting by Jackson Pollack, intense, brooding, full of fire, yet also light, beautiful light, with a celebration, yet a celebration premised on that burning lake of fire. The storyline of the Bible has the two chords of wrath and mercy, braided, and clear.
It is quite clear. But is it compelling? Yes. The wrath of God is always connected to his mercy. God hates sin, for he is holy and dwells in unapproachable light (1 Tim 6:16). We cower at this truth. But, we must realize it is this truth that assures us that evil will be dealt with, the evil that so burdens us on this earth – genocide, the human sex trade, the abuse of children, war crimes, and the like. We do not want a God who will not deal with these. No human definition of love is that big or rationale to justify that kind of god. So, we accept God judges evil, and he is good for it. The part we don’t like is that we fall under this condemnation, too, because, well, we like to see ourselves as so very different. We are first world, white collar sinners, so our sin is more a mistake or mild foolishness. And yet, God is infinitely holy and even the smallest stain of unholiness against that backdrop is an infinite stain. That is Biblical reality. We need a God who hates wrongdoing and sin, and we must embrace that we are part of a rebellion against him. We are sinners. We deserve his wrath.
And yet – and yet – God is infinitely merciful. That mercy always attend to the judgment. That mercy will get the last word. Did you know in the OT, the stipulations in the covenant of Sinai, while severe, were nothing compared to the covenants of the other nations during the time of Moses? And, the covenant of Sinai had one very big condition, that of repentance. If Israel repented, God would relent and he would forgive and he would bless again. No other foreign covenant treaty came close to that. In the intensity of God’s anger against sin, especially the sin of his own people, God’s love and faithfulness persisted and he knew that one day, for he had planned it from the beginning, he would send his Son to be the greatest and final expression of mercy. Only the God of the Bible was a God who offered to forgive, because he would himself absorb his own wrath. Something needed to pay. Jesus was that something, that someone. Think about it. Without wrath AND mercy the cross would be emptied of it’s glory and power. But, the cross is a both-and. The cross is where Jesus, our Lord, took the wrath we deserved in order to show the mercy of God to us! And how we love and worship him for it!
In our day, these two characteristics are assumed to be at odds. No friend, they are part of a beautiful whole, and they both kiss at the cross. If you do not have both, you have no place for the cross.
It may be a journey. It may take a lot of Biblical study and conversation with Biblically minded friends to come to grips with this, and we are all in the process of growing in our knowledge of these things, but please stop running from this both-and. Please accept that wrath AND mercy go together, and that the God who makes most sense, is most awesome, is most glorious, is most winsome, is the God of wrath AND mercy. It will make the Bible come to life and make sense in a new way! It will cause you to fall on your knees again at the wonder of the gospel – the good news that God saves sinners – and salvation and sin only make sense as categories if you have a God of wrath AND mercy.