The judgment of God is not about retribution but about restoration. So also the wrath of God, which for Paul is revealed in the words: God gave them over. We can find several examples of God’s restorative purpose in this in the New Testament. Let us begin, first, with Jesus’ parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32):
A man had two sons. One day the younger son came to his father and asked for his inheritance. This was tantamount to saying that he was done with the father and that it would be just as well if the father were dead. It was a tremendous dishonor to the father, but the father let the son go with his inheritance.
The son wandered off to a far country, far way from his father’s house, and squandered his inheritance on things that are dishonorable. Soon reduced to nothing, he took a job slopping pigs, which was a shameful occupation for a Jew. He was so hungry that he would gladly have filled his belly with the pods the pigs were eating, except that they were indigestible for him. And nobody gave him anything. Then one day he came to his senses, remembering his father’s house.
How many of my father’s hired servants have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired servants.
So he got up and headed home to his father. The father saw him coming, for though the son had turned away from the father, the father never turned away from the son but watched patiently for his return. When he saw the son, he ran out — quite an undignified thing for a man of his position to do — and met his son, embracing him and smothering him with kisses.
The son said, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.” But the father hardly heard, he was so busy giving instructions to the servants: “Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.”
The father demanded no restitution for the inheritance that had been squandered. He required no satisfaction be made for the dishonor that had been shown him. What mattered was that his son, who had been lost was now found, and who had been dead was now alive. And they both greatly rejoiced together.
Another example of God’s restorative purpose is found in the book of Acts, in the gospel preaching of Stephen. In it, he reviews the history of Israel, how they had often turned away from God — and it first happened not long after God delivered them by the hand of Moses from bondage in Egypt.
That was the time they made an idol in the form of a calf. They brought sacrifices to it and reveled in what their own hands had made. But God turned away from them and gave them over to the worship of the sun, moon and stars. (Acts 7:41-42)They turned from God to idols, and God gave them over to it. But that was not the end of the story, of course, for the history of Israel is also the history of God’s covenant love and faithfulness always seeking to reconcile Israel to himself once again. That is why Jesus the Messiah came, about whom Stephen was preaching.
We find the same principle several times in the writings of Paul. In his letter to the church at Corinth, he addressed the situation of a man who was into a form of sexual immorality that not even the pagans would tolerate — yet the Christians at Corinth we tolerating it, and the man was unrepentant (1 Corinthians 5:1-5). Paul’s instruction to them was this: “So when you are assembled and I am with you in spirit, and the power of our Lord Jesus is present, hand this man over to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved on the day of the Lord.”
They were to put the man out of the fellowship. The purpose was not he should ultimately be destroyed but, quite the contrary, that he might delivered from his depravity and come to his senses. This discipline soon had the desired effect, for in a follow-up letter, Paul writes, “The punishment inflicted on him by the majority is sufficient. Now instead, you ought to forgive and comfort him, so that he will not be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow. I urge you, therefore, to reaffirm your love for him” (2 Corinthians 2:6-8). The man repented of his immoral behavior and was restored to fellowship.
We find another example in Paul’s letter to his young protégé, Timothy, concerning two leaders who had turned away from the gospel and were teaching a false message:
Timothy, my son, I am giving you this command in keeping with the prophecies once made about you, so that by recalling them you may fight the battle well, holding on to faith and a good conscience, which some have rejected and so have suffered shipwreck with regard to the faith. Among them are Hymenaeus and Alexander, whom I have handed over to Satan to be taught not to blaspheme. (1 Timothy 1:18-20)Again, Paul does not hand them over so that they would be permanently “shipwrecked” and ultimately destroyed but that they might come to their senses and return to the message of Christ.
One more example we find in Paul, in Romans 11, concerns Israel, particularly those who had rejected Messiah and were, because of their unbelief, broken off like branches from the “olive tree,” Israel. Gentiles were grafted in through faith in Jesus the Messiah, and Paul uses that as an opportunity to provoke unbelieving Jews to faith in Jesus, too, so that they might be “grafted in” again. Paul speaks specifically to Gentile believers here:
Consider therefore the kindness and sternness of God: sternness to those who fell, but kindness to you, provided that you continue in his kindness. Otherwise, you also will be cut off. And if they do not persist in unbelief, they will be grafted in, for God is able to graft them in again. After all, if you were cut out of an olive tree that is wild by nature, and contrary to nature were grafted into a cultivated olive tree, how much more readily will these, the natural branches, be grafted into their own olive tree! (Romans 11:22-24)The purpose was not the branches that were cut off should be destroyed but that they might be grafted in again. And Paul was confident that this is exactly what would happen: “And so all Israel will be saved” (Romans 11:26).
Restoration was always in Paul’s heart, and indeed, that is the way it is with God, too. Though God may give someone over to their depravity, he never gives up on them, because his purpose is not retribution but restoration. He gives them over so that they might one day come to their senses and rejoice in the Father.