God's Wrath is Just, not Unjust

The idea of God’s wrath evokes a strong reaction in many people. Ironically, it angers them to hear about a God who is angry! They have in their minds the picture of a rapacious, vindictive deity who is just looking for the opportunity to hurl thunderbolts at innocent people, a mythological god who gets unjustly furious and demands payment or else will pour out His wrath. While these ideas might suit some cheap novel, they are poles apart from the Bible's teaching about the wrath of God.

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As we shall see, God's wrath is not some uncontrolled divine rage, but rather God’s settled disposition of hostility against sin. His wrath doesn't fluctuate with changing times, as He won't re-write His standards to suit our ideas. God has revealed His immutable standards in His Word, the Bible. He has told us how He eventually will use those standards as the basis for His unerring judgment.

We will focus on what the Bible says about God's wrath in contrast to the popular ideas about the same.

God's wrath is just, not unjust.

Paul's majestic letter to the Romans introduces the subject of God's wrath in its first chapter.He writes'The wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who suppress the truth in unrighteousness' (Romans 1:18). This helps us to understand the target of God's holy anger. It is the ungodliness and unrighteousness of humankind (both men and women).

God hates sin. God is holy, righteous and good and therefore, in His universe, sin cannot stay unpunished. Just as a good judge must punish the guilty so a good God must punish sin. He doesn't change His standard for anyone. Sin is sin.

This verse describes sin as 'ungodliness and unrighteousness'. 'Ungodliness' has to do with our attitude towards God, while 'unrighteousness'has to do with our actions towards other people.

God has set out His standard of judgment in the Old Testament where it is summed up in The Ten Commandments. If you like, we could term them 'the laws of His courtroom'. He gave the Ten Commandments to the children of Israel, who were the custodians of His divine law. These commandments reveal to us what 'ungodliness' and 'unrighteousness' look like in God's eyes.

A slightly shortened form of the Ten Commandments reads like this:

  1. You shall have no other gods before Me.
  2. You shall not make for yourselves a carved image,... you shall not bow down and serve them.
  3. You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain.
  4. You shall remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. (1)
  5. Honour your father and your mother.
  6. You shall not murder.
  7. You shall not commit adultery.
  8. You shall not steal.
  9. You shall not bear false witness against your neighbour.
  10. You shall not covet.

These laws reveals truths about God and man. They show just how 'ungodly' and 'unrighteous' we really are. They are like ten witnesses who stand up in God's court to testify against us or, if you like, a moral mirror that shows up our true uncleanness in God's sight.

The first of the commandments brings home to us our 'ungodliness'.

You shall have no other gods before Me.

This first commandment tells us that God is the only true God. The One who created the universe, sustains  life on planet earth and breath in our bodies, rightfully demands our allegiance. We shouldn't put anything in place of God - nothing at all, not even our dearest relationships or fondest ambitions.

You shall not make for yourselves a carved image... you shall not bow down and serve them.

This commandment shows that God is inscrutable. He cannot be fully understood but can easily be misrepresented. He should not be reduced to the level of sinful human imaginations: therefore we must not picture Him according to our own thoughts, as this would misrepresent the God who is revealed in the Bible. 

You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain.

The third commandment goes further, showing that God's Name should not be invoked without His approval, any more than a police officer should burst into a person's house in the 'name of the law' without the consent of the same law. God's Name must not be used lightly, and obviously not as a swear word.

If we are honest we will have to admit at this point that our attitude towards God lacks proper reverence. This means that we are, by nature and by practice, 'ungodly'.

But that isn't all. The remaining commandments reveal a standard that should mark our dealings with one another. To fall short is to exhibit our 'unrighteousness', yet another reason for God's holy anger against us.

Honour your father and your mother.

God has instituted authority structures in society. The basic unit is the family, where parents, who have authority over their children, should be respected and honoured.

You shall not murder.

Human life should never should be taken away by murder. God created human beings in His image; therefore murder, the illegitimate removal of human life, is a violation of His image. The Lord Jesus taught that murder starts with anger in the heart. (2)

You shall not commit adultery.

God is a covenant-keeping God. He hates all violation of covenants, especially the biblical marriage covenant between one man and one woman. Those who breaks their marriage vows and commit adultery break God's law. In fact, the Lord Jesus pointed out that for a man to look at a woman to lust after her is like committing adultery in the heart.(3)

You shall not steal.

Although He is the creator and owner of everything, God has dignified people with responsibility for the possessions He has given them. Ownership rights are not to be violated by others. We shouldn't appropriate what rightly belongs to others. We shouldn't steal money from the cashier, time from our employers, or music from the internet.

You shall not bear false witness against your neighbour.

God cannot lie. He is a God who doesn't wish his creatures to lie, especially not to the detriment of another human being. What harm has been done to fellow human beings by lying witnesses in a courts of law. How many relationships breakdowns begin with a simple lie? Who can really understand the devastation of lies? Who can say that they have never broken this commandment?

You shall not covet.

God, having blessed us with so much, expects us to be marked by contentment, not greed. Covetousness is the greedy desire for what is not ours. We are to cultivate what we have, not covet what we don't have. This coveting leads to discontent, and the violation of other commandments.

(1) The fourth commandment seems to have been mainly ceremonial in nature, and linked to the Jewish religion. It reminded the Jew of God's rest after creation (Genesis 2.1-3), and His unique relationship with the nation of Israel. The principle of one day's rest in seven is still valuable today. This commandment wasn't repeated as a stipulation in the New Testament. Spending time appreciating God and God's goodness is clearly still just as crucial. The ignoring of this lies behind the sin of being 'not thankful' (Romans 1:21).

(2) See Matthew 5.21-22.

(3) See Matthew 5.27-30.