Read an outside view on Calvinists or Calvinism, and you are sure to read something about God’s wrath. The God of Calvinism is a wrathful, vengeful God, boiling over in anger against any part of creation that has turned against him. He is no God of love, this. Sure, he may have some love for his elect, but to the rest of the world he is this angry, brooding presence eagerly awaiting the day of judgment in which he will cast the rest of humanity into the flames of hell.
I suppose Calvinists have sometimes given others reason to think that this is what we believe to be true of God. Perhaps Calvinists have at times erred by over-emphasizing God’s wrath and have done so at the expense of his love. But this angry, vengeful God is not the true God of the Calvinist.
It is good and useful, though, to consider the relationship of God’s love to his wrath. Are they equal characteristics or is one greater than the other? How can God both love and hate? Just recently I read a powerful response. It came from the pen (or more likely, the keyboard) of Michael Wittmer, professor of systematic and historical theology at Grand Rapids Theological Seminary. Do not let the title intimidate you. His new book Don’t Stop Believing (his previous book is Heaven Is a Place on Earth—anyone else noticing a pattern here?) is a very good, popular-level look at some of the hard questions facing Christians today. One of those questions concerns the cross and whether, as some have suggested, a traditional Christian understanding of the cross is tantamount to cosmic child abuse.
In this chapter Wittmer explains how we can (and must) reconcile God’s wrath with his love. “Scripture says that God is love and that he has wrath. This means that love lies deeper than wrath in the character of God. Love is his essential perfection, without which he would not be who he is. Wrath is love’s response to sin. It is God’s voluntary gag reflex at anything that destroys his good creation. God is against sin because he is for us, and he will vent his fury on everything that damages us.”
Love is at God’s very core. 1 John 4:8 says, “Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love.” Through all of eternity, God has been love; he has existed in a state of love of Father to Son, Son to Spirit, Spirit to Father. There has never been a time that God has not been expressing love; nor will there ever be. But God’s wrath is far different. God has not always been wrathful. He has not always had to express anger. His anger is a reaction to a lack of love—a lack of love for him or a lack of love to others. Wrath is a response to sin. Thus wrath did not exist until sin existed. And as sin came to be, God had to respond to it in a way befitting his holy character. God’s response to sin is wrath. How could it be otherwise? Sin is cosmic treason against the Creator of the universe. He must respond.
At the cross, God’s love met God’s wrath. Wittmer says, “Jesus endured God’s wrath when he bore the curse of sin, but he also experienced God’s love, for the cross was a necessary step in crowning Jesus as Redeemer and Ruler of the world, the Lord whose exalted name forces every knee to the ground. Similarly, though we receive unmerited grace from Jesus’ passion, our old self of sin must die in order to rise to his new life of love.” And so wrath is closely tied to love. If God did not love, God would not be wrathful. It is because of his love that God has to feel and express his wrath. We cannot neatly separate the two. “Every act of God flows from his love, even—and especially—those that demonstrate his wrath.”
Is he a God of love or of wrath? God expresses both love and wrath, but where wrath is demonstrated, love is personified. God is love.