The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness … Romans 1.18.
One of the hymns chosen by the new Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, for his enthronement last Thursday was In Christ Alone by Stuart Townend and Keith Getty. Those familiar with the song will know that it contains the lines: “Till on that cross as Jesus died, the wrath of God was satisfied,” but according to a tweet by David Walker, the Bishop of Dudley, who was present at the enthronement, the majority of those around him ignored the printed words and sang: “Till on that cross as Jesus died, the love of God was satisfied.” Why would they do that?
Probably because the former Bishop of Durham, Dr Tom Wright, in a sermon delivered two Easters ago, very publicly urged anyone singing that song to make that very substitution. But that does, of course, lead to the root question which is: What is so wrong about the idea of the wrath of God being satisfied by Jesus’ death on the cross?
Well, first of all, the Bible nowhere says that it is. Indeed, the concept of wrath in the writings of St Paul is such that it’s “satisfaction” in any way by anything or anyone would be entirely inappropriate. For when Paul speaks of “wrath” he only ever does so using the word orgē and that is not the outburst of a vengeful mind: there is a different word in Greek for that - thymos. In Paul’s vocabulary, “wrath” is nothing whatsoever to do with a God boiling over with anger and looking around for someone on whom to vent his fury.
So what is orgē as Paul uses it? What does he actually mean by “wrath”?
Well, mostly he uses the word in a strikingly impersonal way. He speaks of “children of wrath” (Ephesians 2.3). “vessels of wrath” (Romans 9.22, “day of wrath” (Romans 2.5) and often just “wrath” or “the Wrath” (1 Thessalonians 2.16 etc); and while on three occasions* Paul does actually speak of the “wrath of God” - Romans 1.18 (quoted above), Colossians 3.6 and the parallel passage in Ephesians 5.6 – he nowhere makes God the subject of the verb “to be wrathful.” Indeed, a careful study of all the passages in which Paul uses the word orgē would suggest that, in his vocabulary, it meant “not a certain feeling or attitude of God towards us, but some process or effect in the realm of objective facts” (Prof C H Dodd). It describes the outworking of sin in a moral universe – alienation, pain, fear, hatred, despair, corruption, disease, death – not God’s attitude to man. When I lie and deceive, I break bonds of trust and fracture relationships causing hurt and anger. That is “wrath” as a consequence of sin.
This alone, in my opinion, is a way in which we can uphold both Paul’s teaching on the wrath of God and also the teachings of Jesus which completely omit any reference to God’s anger (unless, as C H Dodd has said “we press certain features of the parables in an illegitimate manner”). For sure, sin has dire consequences in the teachings of Jesus; but, in the face of sin, he proclaims not divine anger but the limitless forgiveness and endless mercy of God; his own role as the channel of all that forgiveness and mercy; and himself as the Saviour – the one who will undo the wrath of which Paul writes, not in the sense of making himself the object of divine anger but in the sense of undoing the horrendous consequences of sin. “The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the devil’s work” (1 John 3.8).
* In some version, translators add “of God” or “God’s” to “wrath” where it does not actually appear in the Greek text, e.g. Romans 5.9 NIV.