Love and Anger at the Cross?
January 6, 2019
Last week, Wyatt Graham published a post titled, "The Father Was Not Angry at the Son of the Cross," in which he rightly explained that God the Father never stopped loving the Son--even when the Son hung on the cross. While there are many good and helpful statements in Wyatt's post--and, while he cites John Calvin for support--quite a number of them raise more questions than they answer. For instance, he says, "To build a case that the Father was angry with the Son goes beyond Scripture and the consensus of orthodox Christianity." Here we need to pause and ask, "Is it, in fact, unorthodox to believe that, in some sense, the Father was angry with the Son when He hung on the cross in the place of His people to atone for their sin and propitiate the wrath of the Father for their eternal redemption?"
That the Father never stopped loving the Son--even when he hung on the cross--is one of the most important Christological truths upon which we can meditate. After all, it was Jesus who said, "Therefore My Father loves Me, because I lay down my life that I may take it again" (John 10:17). Herman Witsius, the 17th century Dutch theologian, explained that the Son "never pleased the Father more, than when he showed himself obedient unto death, even the death of the cross."1 In his sermon, "The Saddest Cry from the Cross," Charles Spurgeon explained,
"If it had been possible for God's love towards His Son to be increased, He would have delighted in Him more when He was standing as the suffering Representative of His chosen people than He had ever delighted in Him before."2
It is impossible for one member of the Godhead to look upon another without infinite and eternal love...even for one second.
While it is undeniable that the Father never stopped loving the Son (even when the Son bore the wrath of God on the cross), the way we should speak about the Son as our substitute in relation to the Father when he hung on the cross has been long debated. Is it right, in any sense whatsoever, to say that the Father was angry with the Son when He punished the Son in our place and for our sin? Was he ever the subject of the holy anger of which we, as hell-deserving sinners, are the proper objects?
When we take up the question about God's disposition toward his people, we must first seek to embrace all that Scripture has to say. The Apostle Paul made quite clear that we are all "by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind" (Eph. 2:3). John Calvin wrote,
"Children of wrath are those who are lost, and who deserve eternal death. Wrath means the judgment of God; so that the children of wrath are those who are condemned before God. Such, the apostle tells us, had been the Jews,--such had been all the excellent men that were now in the Church; and they were so by nature, that is, from their very commencement, and from their mother's womb."3
Why did Jesus have to bear the wrath of God on the cross when he hung there as our representative? Simply put, Jesus had to step in the place of filthy (Job 15:16; Lam. 1:8; Isaiah 64:6; ), ungodly (Rom. 4:5; 5:6); God hating (Rom. 1:30) enemies (Rom. 5:10) who "deserve eternal death," those who are "condemned before God." There was nothing in us to commend us to God. The Apostle puts it in the strongest of terms when he said, "I know that in me (that is, in my flesh) nothing good dwells (Rom. 7:18)." When we read these statements, and the many others like it, we are meant to say, "This is who I am by nature--an enemy of God, alienated from Him and under His wrath and just displeasure."
Nevertheless, God sent His Son because of "the great love with which He loved us" (Eph. 2:4). The Apostle marveled at what God had done in Christ crucified and he said, "God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us" (Rom. 5:8). Paul's identity was bound up in the love of God in Christ. He wrote, "The Son of God loved me and gave himself for me (Gal. 2:20). God does not love us because of Jesus; rather, God loved us and so He gave His Son for us. As John Murray put it, "The death of Christ does not constrain or elicit the love of God but the love of God constrained to the death of Christ as the only adequate provision of this love. The love of God is the impulsive force and its distinctive character is demonstrated in that which emanates from it."
When we take these two things together we have to say that the cross shows me that I am, by nature, the object of God's just anger and displeasure and that I am the object of His eternal and unmerited love, by grace. The cross reveals a both/and rather than an either/or. This is essential to understanding that the Father never stopped loving the Son on the cross and that He made the Son the object of His just displeasure and anger as the representative who stood in our place to atone for our sin and to propitiate God's wrath.
In his "Conciliatory, or Irenical Animadversions on the Controversies agitated in Britain, under the Unhappy Names of Antinomians and Neonomians" (They were quite luxurious with the printing press back then), Witsius explained the longstanding difference of opinion among orthodox theologians over how to speak about the Son in light of the fact that He was bearing the wrath of God for His people on the cross. He first asked whether or not it was proper to say that "Christ on account of the pollution of our sins was also polluted and odious, and placed in such a state that God abhorred him?" After explaining that the Father never stopped loving the Son, but did, in fact, love him most when he was on the cross, Witsius wrote:
"Christ, not because of the susception of our sins, which was an holy action, and most acceptable to God, but because of the sins themselves which he took upon him, and because of the persons of sinners whom he sustained, was represented not only under the emblem of a lamb, inasmuch as it is a stupid kind of creature, and ready to wander; but also of a lascivious, a wanton, and a rank-smelling goat, Lev. 16:7. yea, likewise of a cursed serpent, John 3:14. and in that respect, was execrable and accursed, even to God. For this is what Paul expressly asserts, Gal. 3:13. on which place Calvin thus comments, "He does not say that Christ was cursed, but a curse, which is more; for it signifies that the curse due to all, terminated in him. If this seem hard to any, let him also be ashamed of the cross of Christ, in the confession of which we glory!"4
Witsius then suggested that even if we agree that "God abhorred the Son" when he legally represented us on the cross, we should be willing--for the sake of peace--to limit ourselves to the language of Scripture (e.g. Gal. 3:13; 2 Cor. 5:21),
"What cogent reason is there, why we should say that Christ was odious and abominable to the Father, when we may adhere to the dictates of the Holy Spirit, who pronounces that he was an execration (i.e. an angry denouncement or curse) of God? But I would wish also to know what there is in these words of human invention, except that they are of human invention, for the sake of which others are so much offended. If we love the thing itself, is there more of emphasis or of weight, in the names filthy, odious, abominable, than in the name cursed, or execrable? Why do we strive about words, which may be safely omitted, if found to give offense; but being also innocently said, ought not to be wrested to another sense."5
Next, Witsius set out what he deemed to be, "a convenient method of agreement" in this debate. Citing a letter he received from several English Divines, he wrote,
"Since there is an exchange of persons between Christ and believers, and since the guilt of our iniquities was laid upon him, the Father was OFFENDED AND ANGRY with him. Not that he was ever moved with any PASSION against him, which is repugnant in general to the perfection of the Divine nature, under whatever consideration: neither that he was by any means offended at him, much less abhorred him, so far as he was considered IN HIMSELF, for so he was entirely free from all sin; but as considered IN RELATION TO US, seeing he was our SURETY, carrying our sins in his own Body. Thus, if by an OFFENDED AND AN ANGRY mind, you understand a holy WILL TO PUNISH, Christ the Lord felt and bore the displeasure of God, and the weight of his wrath, in the punishment of our sins, which were translated to him. For it pleased the Father to bruise him, having laid the iniquities of us all upon him."6
Witsius concluded, "If these things are granted on both sides, as is just, what controversy can remain?"
In short, it is right for us to both affirm that the Father never stopped loving the Son when he hung on the cross and that the Father was justly angry with the Son "because of the sins themselves which he took upon him, and because of the persons of sinners whom he sustained." It would be unorthodox to insist that within the Godhead, the love of the Father for the Son was ever diminished or ceased. That would be a denial of the doctrine of Divine simplicity. It would be equally unorthodox to insist that--insomuch as Jesus was the representative of a people who are, by nature, under the wrath and curse of God and rightly the objects of his just anger and displeasure--the Son was not the object of the Father's just wrath.
1.Herman Witsius, Conciliatory or Irenical Animadversions on the Controversies Agitated in Britain, trans. Thomas Bell (Glasgow: W. Lang, 1807), 44.
2. An excerpt from Charles Spurgeon's sermon "The Saddest Cry from the Cross," Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit #2803
3. Jon Calvin Calvin on the Epistles of Paul to the Galatians and the Ephesians (Edinburgh: Thomas Clark, 1841) p. 203
4. Witsius, Conciliatory or Irenical Animadversions pp. 44-45.
5. Ibid. p. 46.
6. Ibid., pp. 46-47.