The Alien Work of God
by Rev. Robert S. Liichow
This article in a way completes the previous three. We have considered the glorious work of redemption specifically as it involved Christ in us, Christ for us and us in Christ. We’ve noted how everything that Jesus did, He did on our behalf. Our Redeemer has paid the ultimate price to “buy us back” by His death on the cross and by grace through faith in Him we have been delivered from the wrath to come (see 1 Thess. 1:10).
Many years ago when I would teach about the attributes of God I would say that our God was “as loving as He is wrathful, as just as He is merciful,” etc. which was my way of trying to convey that our God is perfectly “balanced” in His being. Such statements and beliefs are false. If all of these moral attributes existed in equal parity then we would have no way of knowing moment by moment how God will respond to His people. According to my former concept God might love us the one moment and then equally as wrathful towards us the next. Needless to say, this is not the picture that the Bible portrays for us about the True and Living God.
As human beings we have within us a well of emotions that we can draw upon at a moment’s notice. We can be happily clicking along in our car and in an instant we can become angry at someone who cuts us off suddenly. Many view God in the same light —- God is loving, but step out of line and “whammo” He is right there to club us and cast us into hell. Hopefully this short article will stimulate our readers to further study concerning the wrath of God.
For the LORD will rise up as on Mount Perazim; as in the Valley of Gibeon he will be roused; to do his deed–strange is his deed! and to work his work–alien is his work! Isa. 28:21
Luther wrestled to correctly understand these two seemingly conflicting emotions expressed by God; His merciful grace and His judgment. Luther made a clear division between what he called God’s “proper” work of grace and His “alien” work of judgment. Martin rightly understood that God’s approach to humanity is always wise and for our best, thus His judgment and wrath must too be for our advantage as well. However, because of our fall into sin our flesh (sarx) is so evil that no good thing dwells within us (Rom. 7:18) and our flesh cannot be saved by God’s proper work of grace. Thus it is necessary for it to be saved by His alien work — “God must destroy our ungodliness in order that we might be saved” (Luther’s Works, vol. 16, pp. 233-234).
The Wrath of God
How are we to understand the wrath of our God? The Bible is replete with examples of God’s wrath from the deluge of the great flood, the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, God’s people enslaved in Egypt, Babylonian captivity, Roman occupation and later diaspora of the Jews are just a few examples of God’s judgment. Let’s begin by defining wrath:
WRATH. The permanent attitude of the holy and just God when confronted by sin and evil is designated his ‘wrath’. It is inadequate to regard this term merely as a description of ‘the inevitable process of cause and effect in a moral universe’ or as another way of speaking of the results of sin. It is rather a personal quality, without which God would cease to be fully righteous and his love would degenerate into sentimentality. His wrath, however, even though like his love it has to be described in human
There are seven Hebrew words used to describe the wrath of God, His anger and how He expresses it. I have included these somewhat lengthy definitions for you to possibly explore at a later time. Here are some of the most common words used in Hebrew:
736a חָרוֹן (ḥārôn) heat, burning (of anger). 736b חֳרִי (ḥŏrî) heat, burning (of anger). This word is related to a rare Aramaic root meaning “to cause fire to burn,” and to an Arabic root meaning “burning sensation,” in the throat, etc. The Hebrew verb is always used in reference to anger. The meaning of the root differs from such words for “anger” as ʾānap, zāʿam, and qāṣap, in that it emphasizes the “kindling” of anger, like the kindling of a fire, or the heat of the anger, once started. The verb and its derivatives are used a total of 139 times.
133a אַף (ʾap) I,
2058 קָצַף (qāṣap) I,
References for the above words and definitions:
The Greek New Testament does not use as many subtle linguistically nuanced terms as the Hebrew, just two words mainly used:
2596-97 θυμός (thymos), οῦ (ou), ὁ (ho): n. masc.; Hebr 678, 2771, 2779; 2372; TDNT 3.167—1. 88.178 fury, wrath, anger, rage (Lk 4:28; Ac 19:28; Ro 2:8); 2. 25.19 intense desire (Rev 14:8; 18:3). θυμόω (thymoō), θυμόομαι (thymoomai):3013; 2373—88.179 be extremely angry (Mt 2:16)
Various Theological Positions Regarding the Wrath of God
In the Authorized Version the Hebrew and Greek words for wrath appear 201 times in 197 verses in the Bible. 153 times wrath and its various cognates are found in the O.T. and 48 times in 46 verses in the N.T. From a simple reading of the Bible it would seem that God is portrayed as a wrathful and vengeful deity in the Old Testament and a loving merciful God in the New due to God’s wrath being mentioned almost three times as often in the O.T. When it comes to considering the wrath of God there are several different understandings and what follows comprise the major points of view.
Seeing that the Bible is replete with examples of God’s wrath this point of view is fairly rare but it does exist. Some believe that the concept of “wrath” is simply unworthy of God. As early as about 313/314 Lactantius wrote “De ira dei” one of the very few Christian books devoted to considering the wrath of God. He argued against the Stoic and Epicurean philosophers of his day who believed that nothing good comes to us from Him nor any evil. Today such a denial of God’s wrath is found within the denomination of Christian Universalists, Unitarians and the Church of Christ Science, i.e. Christian Scientists.
The Error of Marcion:
Marcion was the son of a Bishop, whom some say was excommunicated by his father for immorality; regardless of his lineage this much is certain of him and his followers:
Heretical sect founded in A.D. 144 at Rome by Marcion and continuing in the West for 300 years, but in the East some centuries longer, especially outside the Byzantine Empire. They rejected the writings of the Old Testament and taught that Christ was not the Son of the God of the Jews, but the Son of the good God, who was different from the God of the Ancient Covenant. They anticipated the more consistent dualism of Manichaeism and were finally absorbed by it. As they arose in the very infancy of Christianity and adopted from the beginning a strong ecclesiastical organization, parallel to that of the Catholic Church, they were perhaps the most dangerous foe Christianity has ever known.
Marcion denied that the God shown in the O.T. was the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. The God of the O.T. was vengeful, wrathful and cruel; “but the Old Testament was a scandal to the faithful and a stumbling-block to the refined and intellectual
gentiles by its crudity and cruelty, and the Old Testament had to be set aside.” Marcion taught that the god of the O.T. was a demiurge, a god and not the Supreme God. However, this left Marcion with the problem of what to do with all the N.T. citations of O.T. passages, history tells us that he did what President Jefferson would do later with His Bible —- “Marcion had to account for those passages in the New Testament which countenanced the Old. He resolutely cut out all texts that were contrary to his dogma; in fact, he created his own New Testament admitting but one gospel, a mutilation of St. Luke, and an Apostolicon containing ten epistles of St. Paul.”
Marcion viewed God as a deity of simple goodness and he excluded His other attributes, especially His wrath. Regarding our redemption he posits that God delivers humanity from a rival God, the Creator God of the O.T. Because of his lack of understanding the true nature of God he erred in virtually all areas of Christian orthodoxy. He denied the resurrection of the body as well as denied the second coming of Christ to judge the living and the dead. After all, “the good God, being all goodness, does not punish those who reject Him; He simply leaves them to the Demiurge, who will cast them into everlasting fire.”
It is easy to understand why Marcion’s views were popular and hard to eradicate because it painted a very humanistic and idealistic deity who was ALL loving and NEVER angry or wrathful. The Lord of The Church raised up capable men to stand against Marcion, his doctrine and those who later followed him. Thanks be to God for men such as St. Justin the Martyr, Irenaeus (the patron “saint” of all heresy hunters), Rhodon, Tertullian, St. Hippolytus of Rome, St. Epiphanius and others who all “Taught Truth and Exposed Error,” especially the errors of Marcion.
Effectus vs. Affectus
This view comes to The Church via C.H. Dodd who in his Moffatt commentary on Romans put forth the notion that we (theologians) have been misinterpreting the concept of God’s wrath and anger. According to this view talk of God’s wrath is too anthropomorphic and that the Apostle Paul never uses the verb ‘to be angry,’ with God as the subject. In this interpretation it is acknowledged that God’s wrath was the passion of anger in the original O.T. settings, however by the time of the Apostle Paul it had come to denote an impersonal process of cause and effect. The wrath of God is the inevitable result of sin.
In Paul the wrath of God describes not ‘the attitude of God to man’ but an inevitable process of cause and effect in a moral universe. In the long run we cannot think with consistency of God in terms of the highest human ideals of personality and yet attribute to Him the irrational passion of anger.
Dodd’s viewpoint created a lot of debate and today any serious discussion of the wrath of God will refer to him and to A.T. Hanson, who helped develop Dodd’s belief that God’s wrath is only a reaction to our sin. Those who agree with Dodd assert that the wrath of God is to be understood “purely as effectus, as the effects or consequences of sin, rather than affectus, as a prior emotion or feeling on God’s part.” Furthermore, this belief states “the wrath of God is wholly impersonal and does not describe an attitude of God but a condition of man.”
DMI agrees with Dodd inasmuch as we are confined to understanding God in human terms. Being human we have no other way to relate to anything or anyone. The thing to keep in mind when we talk about “God” is that the terms we use are analogous versus univocal statements.
If theologians wish to say Paul’s language of wrath is anthropopathic, then so is any discussion about His love as well. Just as we must be careful not to equate human love with all its distortions, conflicts and imperfections to the perfect love of God, this is equally true as we consider His wrath. By agreeing that our understanding of God’s wrath (or love) is anthropopathic does not in any way deny the corresponding reality of these passions in God.
God’s wrath must not be considered in a crude, literal fashion because His divine wrath is very different from the expressions of the wrath of fallen man. God’s wrath is not some irrational passion or frivolous anger.
God’s wrath against sin does not mean . . . that he is likely to fly off the handle at the most trivial provocation, still less that he loses his temper for no apparent reason at all. For there is nothing capricious or arbitrary about the holy God. Nor is he ever irascible, malicious, spiteful or vindictive. His anger is neither mysterious nor irrational. It is never unpredictable but always predictable, because it is provoked by evil and by evil alone.
In considering the wrath of God we must understand that wrath is not fundamental to God in the same manner that love is. Isaiah called God’s rising up in wrath-filled judgment as His “strange work” and His “alien work.” God is love (1 John 4:8) but we cannot say “God is wrath.” Love is one of the fundamental eternal divine attributes of God. Wrath on the other hand is an out working of the character of God in His response to sin. Before God created anything He was love and this love was active in the Trinity and wrath was nothing more than a potentiality. Wrath is not an attribute of God the way that love, righteousness or holiness are. His wrath is His response to something outside of Himself.
Dodd’s position has much that is worthwhile in considering; however there are some problems with this view. First of all it places wrath in a category that is not a feeling or emotion, an “affect” of God. They teach that God does not have any personal feelings like “displeasure,” however; they teach that His love is personal which is indicative of a faulty hermeneutic. Furthermore their theology does not leave any place for God to have any displeasure with the sinner, only their sin. They cannot make any type of distinction between the wrath of God as expressed against sinful behavior and His wrath against sinners themselves.
There seems to be a form of incipient deism in Dodd’s line of thinking. If God’s wrath is simply part of His “moral order” and a by-product of sin and not something that is actually willed by God, then this is a deistic concept. Also, Dodd and his followers are not immune from the problems of being considered neo-Marcionists. As you read earlier, Marcion argued for a different “God” in the O.T. and N.T. Dodd saw wrath and punishment as an impersonal byproduct of God’s moral order and that God is disassociated from them. Dodd saw God as operating one way in the O.T. and a totally different way in the N.T. making the comparisons of Marcion compelling. Dodd sees that God’s anger disappears in the N.T. and God’s love now becomes all embracing.
What Is the Biblical Position?
As Christians we must deal with the text itself and let the Bible speak for itself. To begin with there is only one true God, the same God in both the Old and New Testaments. There is no difference between the O.T. and N.T. regarding the nature of God. What is true of Him in the Old is equally true of Him in the New. The chart of the Hebrew words shows the nuances that surround this word. The six major words used in Hebrew for the wrath of God are used a total of 406 times, another scholar (Morris) extends his listing to over twenty words that are used over 580 times! There is a connection between the proclamation of the wrath of God and the whole message of the O.T.
God’s wrath is His displeasure and His venting of it is because of His holiness, righteousness and justice. By His very nature He is intolerant of sin and any impurity. What we read in the O.T. is that the wrath of God is both affectus and effectus. When our God places a punishing judgment on people He does so personally, not impersonally or coldly.
In reading the events of when God unleashed His wrath we read that His wrath was indeed fully personal and we also read that His mercy also becomes as fully personal — “for mercy is the action of the same God who was angry allowing His wrath to be turned away. The anger of God signifies his emphatically personal character.”
Does the N.T. paint a picture of a non-wrathful God as Dodd and his followers assert? Dodd went as far as to say that the wrath of God does not appear in the teachings of Jesus. Oh really? As I noted earlier in the article in the Greek N.T. there are only 2 words used for wrath. Dodd made his statement based on the actual non-use of the word for wrath by our Lord in the Synoptic record. However, if you look at the entirety of Jesus` teachings you find that our Lord spoke quite a bit about the coming judgment of God against all evil and evil doers.
Space does not permit me to examine the abundance of proof regarding the wrath of God in the Gospels but here are some illustrations to study on your own. First, keep in mind that Jesus taught and warned people of the dangers of hell more frequently than He spoke of the glories of heaven. Hell, which is the unending outpouring of God’s wrath upon sinful individuals, is an obvious reality and danger for humanity. This fact alone disproves Dodd and his followers regarding their understanding of the teachings of Christ.
Consider some of the parables. We read of the Master handing the servant over to the jailers to be tortured (see Matthew 18:34). In the story of gathering people for the wedding feast and the Master is angry again at how some of those invited respond (see Luke 14:21). Even John the Baptist asked the Pharisees “who warned you to flee the wrath to come? (See Matthew 3:7) Someone had warned the Sadducees and Pharisees that the wrath of God was coming or that warning may have been simply “arrived at” through a study of the Bible and from their study they knew they were in serious trouble with God.
No wrath in the Gospels, or really in the N.T.? What translation do these people read? Have they forgotten that when our Lord returns, He comes as Judge? He will separate the sheep from the goats (see Matthew 25:32-46). Guess where the “goats” go? ” Then shall he say also unto them on the left hand, Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels” (v.41).
The wrath of God is not personal? Again, I would urge those who hold such a position to also re-read the Book of the Revelation. If one does not see the wrath of God in the JUDGMENTS He pours out on the earth as His personal response to sin and sinners, then they are either truly blind or they are being dishonest with the texts. The books are opened and people are JUDGED according to their (personal) works (see Revelation 20:12-13).
For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who hold the truth in unrighteousness; Romans 1:18
I begin to close with another proof, this time from the Apostle Paul who writes that the wrath of God is indeed personal. His wrath comes from heaven, its origin is not earthly but comes from God Himself. His wrath is against ALL ungodliness and the unrighteous actions of men (who are individuals) who are suppressing God’s truth.
For God hath not appointed us to wrath, but to obtain salvation by our Lord Jesus Christ, Who died FOR US, that, whether we wake or sleep, we should live together WITH HIM. Wherefore comfort yourselves together, and edify one another, even as also ye do. 1 Thessalonians 5:9-11
Paul also makes it perfectly clear that the saints will not ever experience the wrath of God because He has not appointed us unto wrath. Instead of wrath He has drawn us to His Son, our Lord Jesus Christ who died FOR US that we might obtain salvation and life everlasting. Now as His brothers and sisters we live our lives IN HIM and WITH HIM and FOR OTHERS, even as we have been studying over these last months. Outside of Christ Jesus there is only the certainty of a “guilty” verdict from our Holy God and with that sentence unremitting punishment in hell. In Christ there is only the certainty of grace, mercy and unremitting joy as we stand before our Father and Lord in the full expression of His effulgent glory all because of what Jesus has done for us!