Children of Wrath and a Changeable God?
“What about Ephesians 2:3’s reference to believers once being ‘children of wrath, even as others’? We believe that God is unchangeable in His being, attributes, works, etc. But how do we explain the ‘change’ in the lives of God’s elect from formerly being in a state of wrath to being in a state of grace? Doesn’t this indicate a ‘change’ in God’s relationship to us? One moment He is only wrathful toward us because we are not yet in Christ and in constant rebellion, and then, when we are saved, we are no longer in that state? Doesn’t this indicate a change in God’s dispositions towards men? (And therefore He is not ‘absolutely’ unchangeable but is changeable in one sense?)”
There are several things that need to be emphasized in answer to this question.
First, God’s unchangeableness or immutability must not be questioned or denied. He establishes this important truth in Malachi 3:6, “For I am the Lord, I change not.” He uses there the name Jehovah, “I am that I am” (Ex. 3:14-15) which not only reveals His immutability but shows that there is no past, present or future in Him. As the “I Am,” with no past, present or future in Him, there cannot possibly be any change in Him or in His dispositions. If He is changeable, He is not God: “the Strength of Israel will not lie nor repent: for he is not a man, that he should repent” (I Sam. 15:29).
Barthianism and Open Theism both teach that God is changeable but, sadly, so do many evangelicals. Trying to maintain God’s immutability while at the same time denying it, they say things such as, “God decrees for Himself a series of different dispositions,” i.e., He eternally decrees that He will change His mind, first being gracious to some and then sending them to hell or first declaring in the gospel that He wants them to be saved and afterward eternally punishing them. Such denies God’s unchangeableness.
Our salvation and well-being depend on God’s unchangeableness. Because He does not change, the sons of Jacob, both in the Old and New Testaments, are not consumed (Mal. 3:6). He is unchangeable as God, unchangeable in His eternal decrees, unchangeable in His attributes, including His love, grace and mercy, for what we call His attributes are simply descriptions of who and what He is. He is unchangeable in His works and ways, and in His revelation of Himself, so we may safely put our trust in Him.
Second, wrath and love (or mercy) are not opposites, nor mutually exclusive. This is a mistake that is often made. That God can be, and is, angry with His people whom He loves is not the same as hating them. Hatred is the opposite of love; anger is not. God eternally loves His people, yet before a believer is converted and when he walks in sin thereafter, God is angry with him and reveals His anger in chastisement. Anger can be loving and love can reveal itself in anger. God’s anger with His people is eternally loving. Indeed, a love that does not become angry at sin and excuses or overlooks it is no love at all. “For whom the Lord loveth he chasteneth, and scourgeth every son whom he receiveth. If ye endure chastening, God dealeth with you as with sons; for what son is he whom the father chasteneth not? But if ye be without chastisement, whereof all are partakers, then are ye bastards, and not sons” (Heb. 12:6-8).
As Hebrews suggests, this is true even in family life. Those of us who are parents do our children a great wrong when we are not angry with their sins and do not show our anger in punishing their sins. That anger must be directed and controlled by love, but a father who constantly overlooks and ignores the sins of his children is showing that he really does not love them. Children understand that and, especially in the case of covenant children, expect and even want their parents to correct them.
We who are saved, therefore, were children of wrath even as others. Though we are among God’s elect and loved by Him from eternity, until we were regenerated we were under His wrath. Indeed, it is an awareness of the awful wrath of God against sin that is one of the first proofs that a person is being spiritually awakened by His Spirit.
We are children of wrath by our first birth and by nature as children of Adam, born and conceived in sin. We are that even as others for, apart from God’s grace, we are no different from those who perish, no better, no more worthy of salvation. The only difference is that God, “who is rich in mercy, for his great love wherewith he loved us, even when we were dead in sins, hath quickened us together with Christ” (Eph. 2:4-5).
We experience God’s anger too, when we are rebellious and disobedient. He chastises us, and we know and feel that He is angry with us for our sin. For a child of God, that is unbearable and it is often used by God to turn us from our sins back to Himself. That was David’s experience: “When I kept silence, my bones waxed old through my roaring all the day long. For day and night thy hand was heavy upon me: my moisture is turned into the drought of summer” (Ps. 32:3-4). It was only when he confessed and forsook his sin that he experienced once again the favour of a reconciled God.
God’s displeasure and wrath with sin is revealed nowhere more clearly than at the cross where, in just anger, He punished our sins to the utmost, while at the same time revealing His great love for us. That was true of Christ also. God was never so pleased with His beloved Son as when He bore without complaint Jehovah’s punitive wrath. Surely the cross proves that wrath and love are not opposites or incompatibles.
Third, the change in our experience from being children of wrath to children who know God’s mercy and favour is a matter of our experience and not of change in Him. He is forever and unchangeably a God who hates and punishes sins, “not a God that hath pleasure in wickedness” (Ps. 5:4). He is also forever and unchangeably a God of mercy who has eternally and unchangeably loved us and who, when we sin against Him, reveals that unchangeable love in angry chastisement. His anger and chastisement are both loving and saving, for, as we have seen, the revelation of His unchangeable anger with sin is one of the means He has ordained to bring us to repentance and faith in Christ.
There are few things more wonderful than to experience the favour of God after being conscious of His wrath and displeasure for our sin. God says, “In a little wrath I hid my face from thee for a moment; but with everlasting kindness will I have mercy on thee, saith the Lord thy Redeemer” (Isa. 54:8). And we respond, “For his anger endureth but a moment; in his favour is life: weeping may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morning” (Ps. 30:5). Rev. Ron Hanko