Paradox of Wrath and Mercy in the God

Luther have always understood that any engagement with God is always a struggle. Just as Jacob had to wrestle with the angel before the angel blessed Jacob, so likewise is any attempt to comprehend and engage with God a laborious and tormenting struggle. Thus, Luther had no easy or simple formulas for holding together the two poles of God’s nature, his wrath or anger against sinning man and his grace and mercy towards the same. I remember as a teacher in a methodist school years ago asked by students why does the school keep dishing detentions when as Christians they ought to forgive. When I answered that according to the Bible we can’t spare the rod, then they complained that its so inconsistent when they preach mercy and forgiveness in the chapel only later to inflict vengeful punishment in the classrooms. I merely laughed at this point but the question has always remained with me. Truly as the Psalmist says out of the very mouth of infants and children has come wisdom!

Of course the common Evangelical/Reformed answer is that on the Cross wrath and mercy meet and God’s vengeance is satisfied by punishing Christ on the Cross that God might show mercy to man. Whatever the merits which such an explanation has, (and I certainly think it is doubtful, like my students I would ask, why can’t God just forgive without the need to exact punishment, on an innocent man of all people too!) it still does not answer the fundamental question. How is God’s wrathful anger against sinners to be reconciled with his grace and mercy, if both are part of his nature, then isn’t it completely arbitary which one he decides to be? How can we pray, as Anglicans do in the Prayer of Humble Access, that God is a God “whose nature is always to have mercy” when sometimes he doesn’t show any in his rather ruthless punishment? Then it isn’t his nature to always have mercy as he sometimes doesn’t show mercy, as when the Lord commanded Israel to literally “show no mercy” to their enemies in Deuteronomy 7:2.

Luther’s answer with regards to this paradox is both subtle and sophisticated and not something which can be grasped easily in a formula, as is his understanding on the nature of Christ’s work on the Cross. I do not claim to be an expert on Luther although I have read some of his works. In what follows will be a Lutheran explanation rather than Luther’s own thinking per se, a thinking which I have developed along the lines of Luther although strictly speaking it may not be exactly his, but it does follow the trajectory of the Lutheran tradition.

The Darkness is in the Eye of the Beholder

In Luther’s Bondage of the Will, Luther muses that if God were truly in control of all the evils in the world, then God would be worse than the devil. There is a certain contradiction in Luther’s thought. On the one hand, Luther insists that God is a God of wrath, whose vengeances burns without mercy against sin. He is a devouring fire, a consuming God. On the other hand, Luther elsewhere insists that God’s nature is nothing but pure love; he is not a God of wrath and of anger but only of grace. How does he reconcile these two contradictory statements?

Luther has a rather interesting answer in that he argues that the God of wrath is not the real God but something which exists as a pigment in man’s imagination. Man sees not the true God but an idol, not God as he is in reality but only a dark cloud covering God’s face. As Luther puts it,

Anyone who regards Him as angry has not seen Him correctly, but has pulled down a curtain and cover, or even more, a dark cloud over His face

Thus, the surprising proposal is as, Paul Althaus, a Lutheran theologian, put it,

This cloud… exists in man’s heart and is therefore not objectively but only subjectively present. It exists only in the false thinking about God to which Satan constantly seduces man… Scripture when it speaks of the wrath of God only reflects our own subjective impression of God and does not intend to say that God is really wrathful.

How can we make sense of this rather extraordinary claim? Has the Scriptures been systematically deceiving us? Is the Wrath of God a mere illusion? Maybe I can propose an interpretation of this Lutheran claim. Luther once mentioned that wrath is God’s “alien work”, it is does not properly belong to God’s nature but he is “forced” into it. Picking up on the idea of “alien work”, let me propose the following claim:

The God of wrath is what God is to us when we do not see God with the eyes of faith and in the light of Christ.

Thus, we see God as the God of wrath when we do not see him in the light of Christ or in faith. Maybe an analogy will help.

Imagine that there is a person whose eyesight is so damaged and terrible that without his glasses, he is practically blind and can only make out vague shapes. Let’s postulate that he is also practically deaf without his hearing aid and can only hear undecipherable vague or loud sounds without it. Suppose on one unfortunate day, he loses both his glasses and his hearing aid. He stumbles about hopeless and helpless as he tries to get help. Suddenly, he feels someone seizing him and thundering something at him, the poor victim becomes frightened and starts to believe that he is being kidnapped or that he is being man-handled by someone with harmful intent. He struggles and resist in fear, but the person who has seized him is too strong and restricts him movements, causing him pain. The victims becomes terrified and even hates this person. But when the person suddenly puts on a pair of glasses on him and replaces his hearing aid, and to his immense atonishment, the person is actually his father who has come to helped him out and restore his senses, and that his father had restrained him because he was about to walk blindly into a road of heavy traffic.

Thus, as mankind who partake of the original corruption of Adam, our perception of God has been darkened and blinded by the devil and our own sinful desires, just as the victim did not perceive his father for who is he, so likewise do we not see our Father in heaven for who he is. When terrible and painful things happens to us, when our conscience or guilt oppresses, we struggle and hate God for inflicting such suffering on us, for frustrating our disordered and sinful desires and we also hate God’s punishment for oppressing us with guilt, just as the victim mistrusts and hates the father for restraining him and causing him pain in the process. But when we put on Christ or receive the light and truth of Christ, we see that suffering or the guilt of conscience is not God punishing us, but we see our own suffering and guilt in the light of the suffering Christ, a God who partakes of our sorrows and pain and even bears our sin and death, to take it away that we might also share and partake of his resurrection. We see in Christ God’s will for us, and what we ought to desire for true human flourishing instead of our destructive and sinful desires which goes contrary to our nature. Thus, when we see God in the light of Christ, we no longer see the God of wrath but the God of love, we see God as he truly is, the Crucified God of Grace and Love who works for our salvation and reconcilation. So likewise when the father puts on the glasses and hearing aid on the victim, the victim recognises his father and sees his restrain and pain in a new light.

Thus there is a sense in which God relates to us as we relate to him. If we deny God’s gracious promises to us in Christ or attempt to see God apart from Christ, then the only God we shall see is the God of wrath and anger and we shall see it everywhere, even on the very grounds which bears God’s curse. But this “God of wrath” does not truly exist, it exists only in the eye of the beholder, because the beholder in sin refuses the light of Christ and the eyes of Holy Spirit, thus, he can only see God as vengeful, punishing and merciless. But once the beholder rejects sins and puts on Christ and the eyes of faith, he perceives God as God truly is, the God of grace and love who bears sins and suffering for the salvation of mankind. Luther would put it in these very strong terms,

As you think, so God is. If you believe that God is angry, he is… Thus our thoughts have a great effect. For God will be toward me as I think he is. So that even though the thought that God is angry is false, it will nevertheless be so, although false.

There is an interesting Gospel which would illustrate Luther’s point about God being whatever we think him to be,

“For it will be as when a man going on a journey called his servants and entrusted to them his property; to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away.┬áHe who had received the five talents went at once and traded with them; and he made five talents more. So also, he who had the two talents made two talents more. But he who had received the one talent went and dug in the ground and hid his master’s money. Now after a long time the master of those servants came and settled accounts with them. And he who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five talents more, saying, `Master, you delivered to me five talents; here I have made five talents more.’ His master said to him, `Well done, good and faithful servant; you have been faithful over a little, I will set you over much; enter into the joy of your master.’ And he also who had the two talents came forward, saying, `Master, you delivered to me two talents; here I have made two talents more.’ His master said to him, `Well done, good and faithful servant; you have been faithful over a little, I will set you over much; enter into the joy of your master.’ He also who had received the one talent came forward, saying, `Master, I knew you to be a hard man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not winnow; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.’ But his master answered him, `You wicked and slothful servant! You knew that I reap where I have not sowed, and gather where I have not winnowed? Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and at my coming I should have received what was my own with interest. So take the talent from him, and give it to him who has the ten talents.”

Matthew 25:14-28

One might think that this is a very strange parable. Is the Master truly “a hard man, reaping where he did not sow, gathering where he did not winnow”? And did Master confess that he really is like that? Rene Girard has a most suggestive interpretation,

The servant who is content to bury the talent that was entrusted to him, instead of making it bear interest, also has the most frightening picture of his master. He sees in him a demanding overseer who ‘reaps where he has not sown.’ What happens to this servant is, in the last analysis, in exact conformity with his expectations, with the image he has constructed of his master. It does not derive from the fact that the master is really like the servant’s conception of him… but from the fact that men make their own destinies and become less capable of breaking away from the mimetic obstacle the more they allow themselves to be fascinated by it.

Thus, we relate to God as we imagine him to be. If we relate to him and think of in in accordance to God’s self-revelation in Christ, we see God properly and as He is, but if we see him outside of Christ, we shall only invent an idol after our own image, which will self-destruct eventually when God works his wrath. The God of wrath is simply a reflection of the darkness in our own hearts.

The Hidden and Revealed God

Another thread of thought which runs through this discussion is the idea of the God “who is hidden” and the God “who is revealed”. Lutheran thought has a very strong Christological center in that they would always insists the Christ is the “true” God, the incarnate God who is revealed in the flesh, the summit of God’s self-revealation after the prophets and the Hebrew fathers. It is in the incarnate God where we find the “true” God, the God who is revealed. But if we attempt to look past God’s self-revealtion in Christ, there is only the darkness of sin and God’s anger. The “God who is hidden” or the God outside the light of Christ is the terrible God of wrath. If we attempt to find God in creation or in ourselves, we shall only see the curse of God on the very grounds of creation, and the terrible voice of judgement in our sinful conscience when we look within. Thus, to see the true God, we must look in faith outside and towards Christ, and in Christ we see God’s heart and God as he truly is, the Suffering Saviour, the Promised Messiah and the Lord of Grace.

Luther has a very interesting commentary on a Gospel event which illustrates his point about the necessity of faith to see the true God.

And behold, a Canaanite woman from that region came out and cried, “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David; my daughter is severely possessed by a demon.” But he did not answer her a word. And his disciples came and begged him, saying, “Send her away, for she is crying after us.” He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” And he answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” Then Jesus answered her, “O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire.” And her daughter was healed instantly.

Matthew 15:22-28

Thus, a Lutheran reading would go like this: Christ in his “rejection” mode is being the “hidden God”, the God who seems indifferent and does not show grace, who seems to reject us and even compare us to “dogs”. But the woman in faith persists and in faith sees Christ for what he “truly” is, the Lord of love and the God of grace whose nature is always to have mercy, no matter how rejecting or distant and yes, even wrathful God may seem, but this wrath God exists only in our sinful eyes and disbelief, we must in faith “break through” our sinful disbelief and fear of God and reach out to the “true” God in faith and lay hold on his promises.

The Preached God

Attached to the distinction between the “revealed God” and the “hidden God” is the distinction between the God who is preached and the God not preached. In order to understand Luther’s concept of “preaching” properly, one must see it in the light of the Lutheran insistence of God being for you. God did not only die for the world but also for you. This “for you” is one of the key distinctions between Lutheranism and every other Protestant denomination. We can see it running through all of Lutheran theology. In baptism, it is God speaking to you, declaring that you are baptised into Christ’s death and body through the minister, in absolution it is the minister declaring that you are forgiven in the name of Christ and by the authority passed down to the minister in the succession of the apostolic gifts. In the Sacrament of the Altar, Christ declares to the congregation that this bread IS his Body which is broken for you, this cup IS the Blood of the New Covenant shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.

Thus, essential to the Lutheran idea of preaching is the concept of being addressed. Preaching is not a third-person objective exposition or explanation of a Biblical text, it is the minister taking authority to declare God’s promises to the congregants, to address God’s promises to the world. Thus, in Christ, we see the heart of God, who as He truly is, a God who is for you, a God of promises for you, a God who gives his life for you and for your salvation. Preaching must always be conducted in the second person, it must always be an address.


I fear that this note has run too long for me to discuss the significance of the Cross and the kenotic Christological innovation in Lutheran thought. But I shall return to these topics may be after I’ve finished the last section on this series.

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