“Wrath.” We know that there’s sin and evil in the world, and we wouldn’t want God to be indifferent to it. But we’re less fond of the idea that we’re part of the problem, and that God’s wrath would be directed toward us.
The apostle John himself seems reluctant to use the word. “Wrath” appears once and only once in his gospel, at the end of chapter three. Earlier in the chapter, he presented a gospel of love: God loved the world so much that he sent his only Son to die for it (vs. 16); what he desires is for people to be saved, not condemned (vs. 17); those who are condemned are receiving the consequences of their own choice to reject the Light and love the darkness instead (vss. 19-20). The love of God is shown in stark contrast to the disordered love of those who do evil.
By the end of the chapter, however, John has to use the W-word. As humans love darkness and hate and reject the Light, so must a righteous God hate and reject evil. It’s not that God can’t be in the same room with it: over and over we read in Scripture about the patience of God, whose long-suffering kindness in the face of sin is meant to encourage us to repent (Rom 2:4). The righteous God puts up with unrighteousness.
But not forever. If that were so, God’s righteousness would be compromised. And as much as we would prefer endless love to wrath, it’s hard to see how God could be truly and perfectly loving without also being truly and perfectly righteous. Parents may put up with their children’s misbehavior for a time — but the question is whether they do so for the children’s sake or their own. Is it truly loving for the parents to let the children do whatever they want?
Don’t get me wrong. I’ve never preached a sermon like Jonathan Edwards’ “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” Edwards’ imagery of a miserable spider dangling by a mere silken thread over the fiery pit of hell terrified people and had them fainting in the aisles. I never will preach a sermon like that, not even if I’m having a bad day. I think John is right to lead with love.
But if we really want love, and not mere tolerance, we have to make room for wrath — the righteous anger of One who refuses to let evil have the final word. Because if we don’t, the good news isn’t good.