John Calvin rightly affirmed that God was never “inimical or angry toward” Christ at the cross (Inst. 2.16.11). Instead, Francis Turretin explains that Jesus experienced the “want of the sense of the divine love” (Inst. 2:354). John Flavel also specifies that God withdrew his “sensible love” from Christ at the cross (Works, 1:410).
In short, Christ always had God’s love even at the cross. Christ willingly died for the joy set before him. Yet at the cross, he did not sense God’s love (though he always had it) because “the sense of the divine wrath and vengeance resting upon him” intercepted Christ’s sense of love (Turretin, Inst. 2:354).*
If not the Son, then with whom or with what was the Father angry? Here’s my answer. God was angry at sin and sinners, yet out of his great love for us he himself bore our sin and died as our substitute. As Michael Horton writes, the cross “was not a cathartic release of anger but a just satisfaction of God’s cosmic and covenantal righteousness” (Justification: 2:226).
God was angry at sin and sinners while also loving them to death
God was angry at sin and sinners while loving them to death. So God assumed humanity and died for us because of his great love (John 3:16 with 1:14). He underwent the punishment that was due our sin by becoming the curse and enduring divine wrath (Gal 3:13).
Yet the first challenge here is that no Gospel book claims that God was angry at sin and sinners at the cross. Nor does any Gospel claim that God was angry at the Son for that matter. Yet something did happen because Jesus cries, “My God, My God. Why have you forsaken me?” (Matt 27:46).
So we need to piece together the total message of the four Gospels and of Scripture. In the first place, Jesus’ command, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matt 4:17) intimates that people need to repent because of their sin.
Paul claims that God saved us from wrath on the basis Jesus’ blood (i.e., his death) in Romans 5:9. So it seems clear to Paul that sin deserves wrath, and it seems clear to Jesus that humans need to repent of sin.
Why would this be so clear to both?
Because The Old Testament Shows Us That Sin Results in Judgment
The answer is that the Old Testament teaches us about the reality of human sin and God’s wrath against sin and sinners. It is the primary conceptual matrix of Jesus and the apostles.
Consider the Book of Numbers. The whole book illustrates the continuous sin of Israel, God’s wrath and forgiveness, and the need for a mediator. For example, Korah rebelled against Moses desiring a more prominent role in the service at the tabernacle.
During this time, Yahweh appeared in glory and said to Moses and Aaron: “separate yourself from this community so I may consume them instantly” (Num 16:21). Not wanting the whole community to die, Moses and Aaron intercede for them saying, “God, God who gives breath to all, when one man sins, will you vent your wrath on the whole community?” (Num 16:22). So God spares the community and punishes those who incited the rebellion.
The Old Testament paints many such pictures of sin, wrath, and forgiveness. In these ways, the Old Testament narrative supplies the rationale for why Jesus came “to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). And yet God is never angry with the Son. In fact, he says, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased (Matt 17:5; Also see Matt 3:17; 12:18). That love was not torn asunder at the cross.
So what happened?
God imputes our sin to Christ
The religious leaders mocked Jesus on the cross by saying, “He saved others; he cannot save himself” (Matt 27:42). Yet it was by not saving himself that he could save others.
Paul explains, “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor 5:21). The point here seems to be that God made Christ to be sin as in counted sin to him.
The parallel in verse 19 confirms this reading: “that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them.” The word “counting” here is logizomai, which means reckon, account, or impute. God does not impute sin to us (2 Cor 5:19); instead, he makes or imputes sin to Christ (2 Cor 5:21).**
So if Christ becomes sin, then he bears our sin and so the consequences for our sin, namely, God’s just wrath. Matthew narrates God’s wrath through the symbolism of darkness, “there was darkness over all the land” (Matt 27:45). Darkness symbolizes judgment (Exod 10:21; Joel 2:2) and mystery (Deut 4:11). And this is what the cross achieves: judgment against sin with the deepest mystery of God.
God out of his great love satisfies his justice by dying for us
What is the mystery? The mystery is that God himself died for us to satisfy divine justice, to forgive our sins, and to credit us as righteous. The mystery is that God loved us so much that he added humanity to himself so that he could gain the ability to die.
God cannot die; humans can. God became human so that he could die for us. And he did so for one sole reason: because God so loved the world.
Yes, God’s righteousness requires that he punish rapists, liars, and everyone in between. Yet God’s love and mercy mean that he takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked (Ezek 18:23). Somehow God must be both just to punish sin and justifier to forgive it out of his great love.
That happens at the cross where the incarnate God died for us. In one inseparable operation, the Father sent the Son into the world to redeem it and the Spirit to perfect the Son’s work. Yet this whole operation happened according to the one will of the triune God.
God was not angry with the Son. He was angry with our sin. Divine justice demands punishment. And this ultimately means death. On the cross, Jesus satisfied divine justice by enduring “all the signs of a wrathful and avenging God” (Calvin, First Catechism; Qtd in Horton, 2018).
And God did it because he loved us while hating our sin. He did it while reckoning sin to Jesus. The Son died while being in want of the sense of divine love according to his humanity but never being in want of God’s essential love for him.
Who was God angry with? Us, our sin. It killed the Son. And so he loved us to death, even death on a cross.
*Asserting that the Father was angry with the Son at the cross makes a threefold mistake. First, God is one, and so it makes an unreasonable claim (that God can be angry at God). Second, classical trinitarian theology excludes the possibility that the Father can will to be angry at the Son; God has one will that works inseparably to accomplish our salvation. Third, the four Gospel books do not emphasize Jesus’ experience of pain but only his cry of dereliction; this suggests that Christ underwent the just punishment for sin—God’s wrath culminating in Christ’s death. It does not suggest that the Father was angry with the Son.
**Or this means that Christ incarnated in the likeness of sinful flesh (Rom 8:3). The point would be similar.
Charlie Bonifacio says
I understand your perspective much better now and this clarification really helps build an understanding of the relationship between Father and Son concerning the atonement achieved for us on the cross.
I certainly understand the concept that Jesus sensed the absence of the Father on the cross. It is such a human emotion for the man/God Jesus to have experienced. I also understand that the Father can have different attributes than the Son. But I still have some difficulty with the concept that God must be wrathful towards our sin. As suggested in my previous response, I don’t always read wrath in God’s attitude towards sin or sinners. Judgment yes, consequence yes, anger, sometimes. In human society we value a judge that is impartial and unemotional, who judges with a firm fairness, and applies the consequences that fit a crime. I believe God can be that way as well or he would really be angry all the time. (Rom 2:9-18)
We think we understand God, and often look to the OT prophets to describe His nature. But Jesus tells us in John, not once but 3 times “no one has seen God” (John 1:18; 6:46 and 1 John 4:12.) This would mean, that Abraham, Moses, Isaiah or even Paul ever saw God with the clarity that Jesus did or explained God to us with the clarity that Jesus did in his teaching and his own character.
John 1:18 “No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son, who is himself God and is in closest relationship with the Father, has made him known.” NASB
If we want to see and understand the Father we must look to Jesus, he shows us the Father and makes Him known. Looking at Jesus and his attitude with sin and sinners, I see judgment and consequence sometimes but mostly mercy and forgiveness and a call to repent, change their way of living.
I still have difficulty with the concept that God MUST punish sin with wrath. As you said, the gospels don’t use the terminology and I have a hard time superceding what Jesus teaches about the Father with any other biblical revelation.
Your two posts on the Fathers anger towards the Son have really helped clarify things for me so thank you for these. If you have any thoughts about this reply I’d appreciate the response.
Thanks for your teaching Graham !
Thanks for reading and interacting. I think your question focuses on two main ideas:
1. To what extent does Jesus explain God (and to what extent this means that God’s primary action in the world is mercy, not judgment).
2. The idea of wrath and how it’s defined.
These are helpful questions/ideas. I have written on #1 before. And I want to write on #2. Instead of answering here, if you give me a week or three to think on these matters, then I will try to write articles as a response. Your questions are really good, and I don’t want to give a partial or unhelpful response.
Thanks, Charlie. I do appreciate the challenging comments.
[Note: despite myself, as a partial response I think that God always revealed himself through the Word even in the OT. So Jesus led Israel in the wilderness, gave the law at Sinai, etc.]
Charlie Bonifacio says
Thanks for considering the questions Graham !
I wait patiently for your next post, take care and blessings in your writing,
Charlie Bonifacio says
“ Dear Wyatt, on this we agree, that the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are one God. Your comment on Jude 5 and the understanding that Jesus was present in the O.T. interactions with Israel bring up an important question for me to understand.
How do you reconcile the Jesus who gave the law in the 10 commandments, “Thou shalt not kill” then the Laws of the Covenant that commanded the killing of those who transgressed the Law, and the genocides commanded to eradicate the enemies of Israel ,,, with the Jesus who taught that to even be angry with another is equivelant to murder, who preached enemy love and sacrificed his own life to atone for the sins of all humanity both past and present ?
Have you written any articles or can you recommend any books that resolve that dichotomy of both law and the character of Jesus ? I know there are theories like ‘Progressive revelation” and others but where do you land on this question ?
Any recommendations would be appreciated.
Joseph Randall says
Hello Brother Wyatt,
In the past, I know I came on pretty strong toward you concerning the topic of the Father’s anger toward the Son on the cross. I’m very sorry for offending you in any way. Please forgive me.
I have continued to think long and hard about Calvin’s words that you mentioned in your two articles. I have run my thoughts through men like Tom Schreiner and my Systematics Prof. from Westminster West, David VanDrunen – and they actually agree with my perspective.
I wrote an article about it and simply want to ask that you read it and consider it on John Calvin’s birthday 🙂 : https://olneybaptist.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/07/Bavinck.Calvin.Penal_.Substitution.2.pdf