Faith, and the Wrath of God
Lent 3, Year A 2023
We have been reading Paul to the Romans, not always in order. While overall the Lenten epistles (from the earlier Roman Catholic version of the three-year cycle) just seem to pick and choose Pauline highlights, the passage immediately after this one was the Lent 1 epistle, its Adam-Christ typology related to the Gospel and Genesis stories that day. Last week and this however we follow Paul’s argument about faith (Rom 4-5) coherently across the two Sundays. Yet the Revised Common Lectionary’s tendency to expand those older lections, to honor context and argument, means we now have the whole of Rom 5:1-11 and so have to handle wrath as well as faith, which does at least make for a clearer connection with the Massah and Meribah story (especially as retold through Ps 95), also heard this Sunday.
In chapter 4 Paul had reflected on Abraham, the righteous and obedient man par excellence but whom Paul offers as a paradigm of faith, rather than as a model of works. Since Abraham’s relationship (and hence that of Judaism as a whole) with God is based on faith rather than works, there is ultimately no real difference between the way Jews and Gentiles live into God’s call: grace is all. Thus we begin chapter 5 with the ringing phrase “since we are justified by faith…”
The Reformation “take” on this—faith, not works— was important, but was inevitably beholden to (and contributed to) the modern emergence of bourgeois individual, the sovereign thinking subject whose interiority is arguably as much the divine authority as God. Thus however seriously we should still take Luther and Calvin (probably more seriously than you think), “faith” has often been reduced either to assent to propositions, as in some classical Protestantisms or, as in more contemporary liberal (and Pentecostal) versions, to the primacy of religious experience.
Paul’s idea of faith is quite different, even though it includes both ideas and experiences; it is much closer to “trust,” insofar as it includes both inner and outer, embodied and social, elements. It’s not just what we think or feel, but also what we do, and what God does too. As my colleague Teresa Morgan puts it, pistis (faith) means “simultaneously Christ’s faithfulness to God and human faith in Christ.”Justification by faith doesn’t mean receiving exemption from divine expectation through Christ as proxy, but receiving incorporation into divine expectation, with Christ.
The appearance of wrath (v. 9 “Much more surely then, now that we have been justified by his blood, will we be saved through him from the wrath of God” NRSV) may cause preachers to duck (or even [bad practice alert] to omit the epistle). Omission and avoidance not being good hermeneutical tools, we should ask why does wrath bother us, and why does it matter?
Many of those to whom we preach struggle with this, for good reason. The angry God of various preaching and teaching has done a great deal of harm (and no, I’m not giving Jonathan Edwards the sort of grudging kudos just afforded the great Reformers, despite him being a Yale man). People are capable of seeing the contradictions inherent in a message that calls them to forgiveness and serenity, while giving the petulant deity room to inflict pain on disobedient creatures. They may also get stuck on the “Old Testament God of wrath, New Testament God of love” trope, which is bad in a different way.
The NRSV does us a disservice by adding language to the original; Paul doesn’t say “from the wrath of God” here at all, but merely “from wrath.” This unqualified use of “wrath” is much more common in Paul, suggesting wrath is more like a reality of its own (think gravity, sin, taxes etc.) than an emotion that causes God to act violently, although it’s true that Paul understands this wrath ultimately to be from God (see Rom 1:18). But it’s quite wrong to read this as “much more surely…will we be saved from an angry God.”
Wrath, in Paul’s terms, is the necessary tension between God’s just and loving purpose and the broken state of the world. This is not the anger you and I experience when our goals are frustrated, it’s the difference between God’s hope and our reality. It is only a problem to speak of a wrath linked to God if you don’t think (e.g.) racism, climate change, and capitalist rapacity don’t matter enough to warrant anger. Of course wrath language does have an anthropomorphic cast, but tell the Ukrainians God isn’t mad. Tell Greta Thunberg. Tell Tyre Nichols’ mother. The emphasis on wrath is Paul’s way of acknowledging that evil deserves judgment, and that God will exercise that judgement.
Yet Paul’s message throughout Romans is that God’s grace is more powerful than the disobedience that gives rise to, and incurs, that wrath. So through vv. 6-10 here he constructs an a fortiori argument: if God’s love has already been shown so powerfully by Christ’s gift of self, even when we were enemies, how much more need we not fear wrath, because that love has been made real.
Love is the nature of God, but wrath is its necessary historical and existential corollary. A God who loves is also a God who cares enough about the dissonance of an unjust world and of unfaithful people for there to be consequences. In the end however, all is love. The faith by which we are justified is not a performance of our mind or will that allows us merely to escape the wrath of an implaccable God. It is our incorporation into the work of a gracious God, reconciling us all into the same faith Abraham had, through Jesus.
Morgan, Teresa. Roman Faith and Christian Faith: Pistis and Fides in the Early Roman Empire and Early Churches. Oxford University Press, 2015, p. 273.