A Commentary by John Stott
Paul has not yet completed his description of our pre-Christian state. He has one more unpleasant truth to tell us about ourselves. Not only were we dead and enslaved, he says, but we were also condemned: *we were by nature the children of wrath, like the rest of mankind* (verse 3b). I doubt if there is an expression in Ephesians which has provoked more hostility than this. Some commentators make little or no attempt to understand, let alone defend, it; they dismiss it as untenable today. The causes of their hostility are three. They concern the words ‘wrath’, ‘children’ and ‘by nature’. We must now consider carefully what Paul means by them, and try to clear them from misconception.
First, the wrath of God. God’s wrath is not like man’s. It is not bad temper, so that he may fly off the handle at any moment. It is neither spite nor malice, not animosity, nor revenge. It is never arbitrary, since it is the divine reaction to only one situation, namely evil. Therefore it is entirely predictable, and it is never subject to mood, whim, or caprice. Further, it is not the impersonal outworking of retribution in society, ‘an inevitable process of cause and effect in a moral universe’, whether through social disintegration or through the administration of justice by the law courts or in some other way, as C.H.Dodd argued in his famous Moffat commentary on the letter to the Romans. The fact that ‘wrath’ (*orge*) or ‘the wrath’ (*he orge*) occurs without the addition of the words ‘of God’, does not make his wrath impersonal any more his grace becomes impersonal when the words ‘of God’ are omitted as in verses 5 and 8 of this chapter (‘by grace you have been saved’). No, the wrath that judges and the grace that saves are both personal. They are the wrath and the grace of God.
So what is this wrath if it is neither an arbitrary reaction nor an impersonal process? It is god’s personal, righteous, constant hostility to evil, his settled refusal to compromise with it, and his resolve instead to condemn it. Further, his wrath is not incompatible with his love. The contrast between 3 and 4 is notable: *we were by nature children of wrath…But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us…* Thus Paul moves from the wrath of God to the mercy and love of God without any sense of embarrassment or anomaly. He is able to hold them together in his mind because he believed that they were held together in God’s character. We need, I think, to be more grateful to God for his wrath, and to worship him that because his righteousness is perfect he always reacts to evil in the same unchanging, predictable, uncompromising way. Without his moral constancy we could enjoy no peace.
The second problem people find is in the phrase *children of wrath*. For the words conjure up a picture of little children, even newborn babies, as under God’s wrath, and understandably people do not like what they see in their minds. But it is safe to say that there is no allusion here to little children. The expression is another Hebraism, like ‘sons of disobedience’ in verse 2, and refers to people of all ages. NEB helpfully substitutes the statement: ‘we lay under the dreadful judgment of God’.
The third problem is in the adverbial clause *by nature*. In what sense is it ‘by nature’ that we were the objects of God’s wrath and judgment? To begin with, we can surely all agree that Paul draws a deliberate contrast between what we were ‘by nature’ (*phusei*, verse 3) and what we have become ‘by grace’ (*chariti*, verse 5). It is a contrast between the past and the present, between what we were when left to ourselves and what we have become because God intervened on our behalf, and so between judgment and salvation: ‘By nature we were under God’s wrath, by grace we have been saved.’ That much is clear, and uncontroversial.