The sentiment that Jesus has unconditional love for all of us has become standard fare in many evangelical churches. The speaker assures the congregation that Jesus loves them to such an extent that he died for them. He assures the audience that Jesus is just waiting for them to turn to him and to reciprocate the love he already has for them. Some people go even further in their claims to unbelievers. I remember once reading an article by Rick Warren printed in Ladies Home Journal. In this article, titled “Learn to Love Yourself!,” Warren wrote the following: “God accepts us unconditionally, and in His view we are all precious and priceless.” The article closes with these words: “You can believe what others say about you, or you can believe in yourself as God does, who says you are truly acceptable, lovable, valuable and capable.” Nowhere does he qualify these statements. Instead they are offered as blanket statements, encompassing all of humanity.
Is this how the Bible portrays God’s feelings towards those who do not believe? It’s worth a glance at just a few of the many passages that speak of God’s position towards the unregenerate.
Psalm 5:5 says that “The boastful shall not stand before your eyes; you hate all evildoers.” The NIV translates this as “you hate all who do wrong.” Psalm 11:5 tells us that “The LORD tests the righteous, but his soul hates the wicked and the one who loves violence.” And turning to the New Testament, John 3:36 reads “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 Bible clearly portrays God as one whose wrath burns against both sin and sinner. His righteous anger burns against all unrighteousness, and against all who are unrighteous.
In The God Who Justifies, James White writes the following. “Theologians should be those enraptured by the beauty of the unchanging object of their study: the eternal, immutable God. But theologians are people, and they are influenced, to greater or lesser extents, by the society and era in which they live. The cultural decay of modern times has inspired many a theological denial of biblical truth, most often when that biblical truth speaks to something that is unfashionable. One such issue…is the oft-repeated biblical phrase ‘the wrath of God.’” White goes on to say that while we most often associate God’s wrath with the Old Testament, where he commanded the Israelites to utterly destroy the pagan nations, in reality his wrath is most clearly shown in the New Testament. Were you to ask where in the Bible we see the clearest picture of God’s wrath, I would have to point to Jesus’ final hours, from the Garden of Gethsemane to his death on the cross. After all, what but the need for satisfaction of God’s wrath, could compel the Father to send his Son to such a horrible, painful, death?
Readers Digest has (used to have?) a monthly column entitled “That’s Outrageous” where readers can submit stories about miscarriages of justice. These stories often feature criminals who have committed crimes, yet have found either a corrupt judge or a loophole in the system that has allowed them to escape justice. When we read this, do we react with adulation towards the judge who let the person escape justice, or do we react with an exclamation of “that’s outrageous!”? Of course we react with shock and outrage. This is a natural reaction–we expect and demand justice for all who violate the law. Yet when it comes to God, we seem to want him to be something just a little less than human. We expect God to look upon human evil and wink his eye or turn his back, loving the one who has blatantly, purposely violated his rules and flaunted this sin before him.
There are some words we use all the time, but we can never expect to hear from God. Among them are “we can’t blame him…” and “it’s not his fault…” When a young man commits a terrible crime, we are quick to excuse his actions because of a tough past or abusive parents, but God never excuses sin. When a woman deserts her husband and children, we may look to her past and find all sorts of reasons that she should not be held accountable, but God does not do this. He holds each of us accountable for every one of our actions. There is never an excuse for violating his law. God cannot and will not turn his back on even the tiniest sin. It is against his very nature to do so. Every sin demands an accounting.
Perhaps part of the problem is that we have misunderstood God’s love. Perhaps we have interpreted God’s perfect love, through our imperfect, changing, emotional, sentimental, untrustworthy love. To paraphrase Leon Morris in The Apostolic Preaching of the Cross, when the Bible speaks of God’s love, it does not refer to a warm, fuzzy sentimentality, but a love that is so jealous for the good of the one who is loved that it blazes out in wrath against all evil. The writers of the New Testament had no concept of a love that did not react in the strongest fashion against all sin. He writes “Perhaps the difficulty arises because we are making a false antithesis between the divine wrath and the divine love. We are handicapped by the fact that we must necessarily use terms properly applicable to human affairs, and for us it is very difficult to be simultaneously wrathful and loving.” But God is able to be both perfectly loving and wrathful. Unlike us, he is not given to outbursts of emotion or to irrationality. His wrath is as perfectly and completely manifested as his love.
So now we must ask why this matters. What does it matter if we believe God has full and unconditional love toward everyone? The problem is that a diminished view of the wrath of God indicates a diminished view of human depravity. A person who believes God’s wrath does not abide on the sinner, must also believe that God does not hate his sin. This will inevitably lead to a diminished view of justification. What use is justification if sin is not really that important? It is no wonder that the doctrines of grace begin with Total Depravity. Only when we understand the desperation of man’s condition can we understand the love and wrath of God. It may seem to us that it is easier and more effective to preach a gospel of universal love–a gospel where God loves and accepts us just as we are. But this is not the gospel of the Bible. Until we know our sin and God’s wrath against it, we cannot know love. Until we know love, we cannot know the Savior.