The Atonement

Why Is Propitiation Needed? The Wrath of God For Sin

In some of the various theories of the atonement, wrath as a concept has fallen away as having any part in what God is doing. It doesn’t seem to be only a question of viewing the atonement under a Christus Victor model, or a satisfaction model.  Rather, it is that wrath and judgement upon sin are seen as odious ideas—that for God, who is love, to express wrath would be inconsistent with his nature and being. (I am not aware of anyone who who holds to penal substitutionary atonement who does not also affirm God’s wrath is poured out on Jesus on the cross, something I address in the next  post.)
The cross, salvation, and indeed, forgiveness of sins itself does not make biblical sense if God has no wrath against sin. To see the need for propitiation requires an understanding of God’s view of sin, and of his wrath against it.

The wrath of God in the Old Testament

The Hebrew Bible is replete with examples of God’s wrath directed against sin. Leon Morris, in his book The Apostolic Preaching of the Cross, notes

“To the men of the Old Testament the wrath of God is both very real and very serious. God is not thought of as capriciously angry (like the deities of the heathen), but, because He is a moral Being, His anger is directed towards wrongdoing in any shape or form.
There are more than twenty words used to express ‘wrath’ as it applies to Yahweh (in addition to a number of other words which occur only with reference to human anger.)
There is a consistency about the wrath of God in the Old Testament. It is no capricious passion, but the stern reaction of the divine nature towards evil. It is aroused only and inevitably by sin.[1]

As Morris describes, God’s wrath is always just—never arising out of pique or lack of self-control. As D. A. Carson has said, “it is not simply God losing his temper.” Secondly, that it is a right response of God toward sin and evil, consistent with his holiness. To say it would be inconsistent for a loving God to show wrath against sin is to say that God is not free in his person, and the attributes Scripture portrays him to have are incompatible. In short, such a view impoverishes the nature of God. That God, who is love, can likewise exercise wrath against sin is clear by several passages of Scripture.

When Moses is granted by God to see but a portion of his being, God announces his name as he passes by.
“The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.” Exodus 34:6-7.

Indeed, YHWH is slow to anger, and he is abounding in steadfast love, but he does have anger against the guilty. This is frequent and pervasive throughout the Old Testament.
“if you act corruptly by making a carved image in the form of anything, and by doing what is evil in the sight of the Lord your God, so as to provoke him to anger, I call heaven and earth to witness against you today” Deut. 4:25-26.

“And in the days to come evil will befall you, because you will do what is evil in the sight of the Lord, provoking him to anger through the work of your hands.” Deut 31:29.

O Lord, rebuke me not in your anger,
nor discipline me in your wrath. Ps. 6:1

Yet he, being compassionate,
atoned for their iniquity
and did not destroy them;
he restrained his anger often
and did not stir up all his wrath. Ps. 78:38

For my name’s sake I defer my anger;
for the sake of my praise I restrain it for you,
that I may not cut you off. Is. 48:9

This is small sampling of the many places the Old Testament speaks of God’s wrath and anger, and that it is directed against sin. But it is also clear that God provided a means of atonement in the sacrifices he ordained.

The entire cultus of the nation of Israel is set forth with a view to atonement, that is, that pardon for sin, cleansing from iniquity is because of an offering. This is true from the opening of Leviticus, and the burnt offering. “He shall lay his hand on the head of the burnt offering, and it shall be accepted for him to make atonement for him.” Lev. 1:4. Here there is substitution, acceptance and atonement. The acceptance of the worshiper is because atonement has been made, and atonement is because of the death of the sacrifice, and the offering of its blood. When the instructions for the sin offering are given, it is similar language. “As he did with the bull of the sin offering, so shall he do with this. And the priest shall make atonement for them, and they shall be forgiven.” Lev 4:20.

The blood of the offering is put on the horns of the altar, and poured out at the base of it.
God is propitiated through the sacrifices he has ordained. Someone may ask where the idea of wrath enters in. Sin, as we have seen, is the cause of God’s wrath. Sin atoned for, an offering for sin is the reason God is propitiated, the reason his wrath is no more against the offender.

The Wrath of God in the New Testament

From the opening of the Gospels, John the Baptist asks the Pharisees who warned them to flee from the wrath to come. Jesus, speaking of the tribulation to come upon Israel said, “For there will be great distress upon the earth and wrath against this people.” Luke 21:23. In John’s gospel, he ends the 3rd chapter with a statement of logical simplicity: “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him.” The wrath of God is upon sinners because they sin, entirely consistent with what the Old Testament witnesses.

When we come to the epistles, Romans 1-3 is in one sense an extended argument that God’s wrath is justly directed against man for their sin. “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men.” 1:18. Is is notable that this statement comes after Paul’s great gospel announcement, that he is not ashamed of the gospel, “For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith.” There is a connection of revelation here. The gospel reveals God’s righteousness, and God’s wrath is revealed against unrighteousness. These two go together, as Mark Seifrid notes.

“This divine dispute with humanity provides the background to Paul’s announcement of the justifying work of the gospel in Romans 1:16-17. Juxtaposed to the ‘righteousness of God’ in 1:17 stands the ‘revelation of God’s wrath’ in 1:18. Although some have appealed to the parallelism between the two expressions as an indication that they represent opposing activities of God, Paul’s subsequent argument shows that he regards them as interdependent. In correspondence with its biblical background, for Paul God’s saving righteousness does not abrogate his righteous judgment against the world, but brings it to completion.”[2]

In other words, the exercise of wrath against sin forms part of the gospel for Paul. The subsequent arguments in Romans will show this. “But because of your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed.” 2:5

“what shall we say? That God is unrighteous to inflict wrath on us? (I speak in a human way.) By no means! For then how could God judge the world?” 3:5-6.

I could cite other passages from the New Testament. Much of 2 Thessalonians is taken up with the theme of God’s coming wrath, “inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God” 2 Thess 1:9. The bulk of Revelation deals with this theme, and even if one takes it to be entirely symbolic or allegorical, it would in now way diminish the idea of God’s wrath directed against sin and sinners. The New Testament, like the Old, shows a consistency in the wrath of God against sin. Indeed, if there is no wrath against sin, the necessity of deliverance, of propitiation is unclear.
Next, I look at the propitiation God provided in Christ, when he absorbed God’s wrath.

[1] Leon Morris, The Apostolic Preaching of the Cross3rd Ed., (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 1965), 149-150.

[2] Mark Seifrid, Christ, Our Righteousness: Paul’s Theology of Justification. NSBT.
(Downers Grove: Apollos, 2000), 48.

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