Christians ought to delight in pondering God. It ought to be our joy to think about him, what he’s done, and who he is. When we do that, we’ll find ourselves meditating on God’s attributes, his essential characteristics.
Any attribute of God must be true of him eternally and at all times. This is necessarily true because the Bible teaches us that God is immutable. He doesn’t change. God says in Mal. 3:6, “For I the LORD do not change; therefore you, O children of Jacob, are not consumed.” This is why God’s wrath isn’t one of his attributes, but love is.
Why Wrath is Not an Attribute of God
God’s wrath hasn’t been eternally expressed. God’s wrath only exists in the face of sin. Prior to the sin of Satan and, subsequently, of Adam and Eve, there was no divine wrath. Yet the Bible speaks of God’s wrath as something real – see Ps. 7, for example. So, if it’s not an attribute, then what is it? God’s wrath is the expression of his justice or righteousness towards sin. Justice or righteousness is the attribute existing eternally. Wrath is the way the just and righteous God responds to sin committed against him.
Someone might wonder about the use of the term “prior” in relation to God – as in: “prior” to sin there was no divine wrath. After all, sins are committed by creatures in time. However, the Creator, God, exists above and outside of time. Both of those statements are true. But God also acts, reveals himself, and expresses himself within the time dimension in which his creatures live. Herman Bavinck expresses this well:
God pervades time and every moment of time with his eternity. Hence, God maintains a definite relation to time, entering into it with his eternity. Also, for him time is objective. In his eternal consciousness he knows time as a whole as well as the succession of all its moments. But this fact does not make him temporal, that is, subject to time, measure, or number. He remains eternal and inhabits eternity, but uses time with a view to manifesting his eternal thoughts and perfections. He makes time subservient to eternity and thus proves himself to be the King of the ages (1 Tim. 1:17). (Ref. Dogmatics (Vol. 2), p.164)
God uses time to manifest his justice or righteousness by expressing his wrath. Time, in which sin is committed, is the context for God’s response to sins committed.
Why Love is an Attribute of God
The Apostle John famously tells us that God is love (1 John 4:8). God is defined by his loving disposition. However, for there to be love there must always be someone to be loved. Love always exists in the context of another. How can love then be an attribute of God? All of God’s attributes must be true of him eternally. But in eternity past, before there was a creation, who did God love? The biblical answer is two-fold.
In John 17, in his “High-priestly Prayer,” Jesus speaks about the relationship he has with God the Father. He says in John 17:24 that the Father loved him “before the foundation of the world.” Before creation there was an eternal, perfect love not only between the Father and the Son, but also between the Father and the Holy Spirit and the Son and the Holy Spirit. There was and is and always will be an infinite and immaculate intra-Trinitarian love.
But there’s another remarkable passage which speaks about love “before the foundation of the world.” Eph. 1:4-5 tell us that God’s election of certain sinners was done in love. Before creation God freely set his love upon certain individuals who didn’t even yet exist in time and space. If you’re a true Christian, you’ve been loved by God before the stars shone in the sky. God’s love has always been there.
There’s something comforting in knowing that God’s love is an attribute, whereas his wrath isn’t. Love is who God is, essential to his identity. No human being can love like God does. Wrath is not who God is; unlike love it is not essential to his identity. God expresses wrath against sin and sinners, but it is the necessary expression of his justice. It’s human sin which draws this response from God; God who would otherwise remain favourably disposed to his creatures. The cross was God’s great plan to turn his wrath away and return loving favour.
At the cross, we see both wrath and love. Mysteriously, in three hours God’s hellish wrath is poured out upon his beloved Son, the one bearing our sins. Christ did this out of love for us, revealing God’s eternal love for sinners. Infinite wrath has now been turned away from us and infinite loving favour returned. God’s wrath does not remain on believers, but his love surely does!