God gave them over. (Romans 1:24)
At the top of his letter to the church at Rome, the apostle Paul tells us about God’s wrath toward the wicked. It is not the retaliation of a vengeful deity. It is God giving them over to themselves — to their sinful desires and self-degradations (1:24), their shameful lusts (1:26) and their depraved minds (1:28).
Does this mean that God is then done with them, that all that is left for them is to suffer the torment of their own depraved ways? I don’t think so, for in a couple of other places, Paul speaks about turning people over to their own ways so that they might repent. Concerning the church member at Corinth who was sleeping with his father’s wife, Paul instructs the church to “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” (1 Corinthians 5:4-5). And in a letter to his protégé, Timothy, he writes about “holding faith, and a good conscience; which some having put away concerning faith have made shipwreck: Of whom is Hymenaeus and Alexander; whom I have handed over to Satan, that they may learn not to blaspheme” (1 Timothy 1:19-20).
The verb we are looking at in these two passages is the Greek word paradidomi, translated as “hand over.” It is the same word Paul uses three times in Romans 1 when he says that God “gave them over.” In the Corinthians and Timothy passages, the action of “handing over” these people to satan is not the final pronouncement on them or an end in itself but is for the purpose of restoration: “so that his spirit may be saved” and “that they may learn not to blaspheme.” When God likewise hands the wicked over to their depravity, should we assume that his purpose is any less restorative than Paul’s? Is it not that they might repent and glorify God?
The wrath of the world is often retributive. But God is interested in restoration. That is why Christ came, through whom God was reconciling the world to himself (2 Corinthians 5:19). The love of God is never finished with us, never gives up on us, but is always at work for our good.
There is no wedge between the love of God and the righteousness of God. Righteousness is not the measure of how offended God is at unrighteousness. It is the faithfulness of God to love and do good toward us, even when we have failed to be faithful and do good. But if we conceive of the righteousness of God as God’s offendedness towards us so that he finally gives up on us, then that is a contradiction to the love of God, which never fails.
Likewise, there is no contradiction between the grace of God and the wrath of God, for the wrath of God is a manifestation of the love and grace of God. But if we conceive of the wrath of God as purposed for retribution instead of for restoration, then that is a contradiction to the grace and love of God. God’s wrath is about rescuing us from our waywardness, not from divine retaliation or offendedness.
Those who persist in rejecting God’s grace, God “gives over” to their unbelief. That is the “wrath.” It is not in order to damn them, for God did not send Christ into the world to condemn the world but to save the world through him. Rather, it is an act of grace — a hard grace, no doubt, but grace nonetheless. It is a manifestation of divine love, as everything God does must be, even toward the very ones who reject him. It is not an act retaliation but that they might, like the prodigal son in Jesus’ parable, “come to their senses” and return to the Father.