People wrestle with the concept of the wrath of God. They have a hard time reconciling the reality that God is a loving Father with the reality of His wrath. But these two truths are not contradictory—they are actually complementary. Just as a loving Father hates a disease that threatens his child, God hates sin that threatens to destroy us.
A major part of Paul’s argument in Romans is that we were all under wrath because of sins against a holy God. Until atonement was made for our sins, we stood under the wrath of God. His righteous, justified, holy opposition against sin stood against us. His wrath is not a wrath that flies off the handle. Is it not a capricious anger. But it is a settled hostility against sin that cannot be dismissed or overlooked. It must be placated before we can have a relationship with the Father.
But how is this accomplished? Paul speaks to this in Romans 3:25, “God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement through the shedding of his blood—to be received by faith. He did this to demonstrate his righteousness, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished…”
What does Paul mean by the phrase “a sacrifice of atonement’? In a pagan context, human beings sought to avert the divine anger by performing rituals or offering sacrifices. But the bible says there’s nothing we can do to turn away God’s anger. We deserve nothing at his hands except judgment. But the gospel announces the amazing news that God himself in his grace has taken the initiative to deal with sin. God himself ‘presented’ Jesus Christ as a sacrifice of atonement. The atonement did not procure God’s grace, but flowed from grace. God’s love is the source, not the consequence, of the atonement. God’s wrath needed to be placated, but it was his love that did the placating. God did not change from wrath to love. Or from enmity to grace. God’s feeling toward us never needed to be changed. But his treatment of us did change because of the cross.
The sacrifice was not an animal but a person. The person he offered was not somebody else—it was God who offered himself in the person of Jesus. Only God could take our place. “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself” (2 Cor. 5:19). John Stott says, “Thus God took his own loving initiative to appease his own righteous anger by bearing it his own self in his own Son when he took our place and died for us.”
This is called substitionary atonement. This is prefigured in the Old Testament. In Leviticus, we read about the Day of Atonement. On the Day of Atonement the high priest would enter the holy of holies and sprinkle blood over the mercy seat on the top of the ark of the covenant. He did this to ‘atone’ for the sins of the people, but of course, it was only symbolic and representative of what Christ would do centuries later. Christ became our one and only high priest and offered himself once and for all for our sins. Leviticus 16 describes the scapegoat. The high priest would place his hands on the head of the goat and the sins of the people were symbolically placed on the goat. The goat was then taken into the wilderness never to be seen again—to symbolize that someday, Christ would become our scapegoat, bearing our sins. The entire sacrificial system in the Old Testament was designed to depict that while the people stood under God’s wrath because of their sins, their sins would someday be removed by the Messiah, who would become the sin-bearer.
This imagery is extended with the Passover. God’s wrath was about to be unleashed in Egypt because of Pharoah’s treatment of the Israelites. But when the Israelites put the blood of a lamb on their doorposts, the death angel passed over them. Similarly, though we might have born the wrath of God against our sins, God ‘passes over’ us because we are marked with the blood of the Lamb. John 1:29, “Look, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.” 1 Corinthians 5:7, “Christ, our Passover Lamb, has been sacrificed.”
While the concept of God’s wrath against sin being unleashed at the cross is unsavory to some, it is a central teaching of the bible. This is precisely what Jesus is referring to when he says, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” The Father turned his face away as Jesus received the wrath of God against sin. Justice had to be served. The writers of the Bible never run from the concept of justice. God is a God of justice and a God of love. The cross was the perfect intersection of these two. Justice was served in that sin was punished in Christ. Love was demonstrated and bestowed as God made our salvation possible. God could not look the other way where sin was concerned. Nor could he leave us helpless in our sinful condition. The cross was and is the perfect response of heaven. Praise God for His wrath against sin, and praise God for His averting of that wrath by way of the cross!