In brief, the answer is relational and not forensic. When a believer sins, God’s wrath is not on him (Jesus took that away forever).
Justification involves two aspects:
1. The complete forgiveness of sin
2. And, the reckoning as righteous in God’s sight
Thus, two things happen in the Gospel:
1. God removes the charge of sin and guilt against our account
2. God gives us the gift of righteousness from Christ
This double gift comes through receiving (i.e., faith) Christ’s redemption through the shedding of His blood (cf., Eph. 1:7).
Therefore, when we sin we must continually keep these double benefits of the Gospel before us as reminders that we are delivered from the charge of sin and guilt before God (cf., Rom. 8:33-34). We must remember that we are delivered from all condemnation before God (cf., Gal. 3:13; Rom. 8:1). We must remember that Jesus exhausted God’s wrath (i.e., propitiation) on the Cross, therefore there is no wrath remaining on us (cf., Rom. 3:25). We must remember that since we have been justified, we can come before God without fear (cf., Heb. 4:14-16; 1 John 4:18).
Where there is no blame before God, there can be no wrath from God.
Does this then mean that God is not concerned about the sins of Christians? It’s forgiven, right? Not if we continue in it (cf., 1 John 3:9). We are not antinomians (i.e., against law/lawlessness). A Christian’s sin also leads to divine displeasure. We must never think of sin as being less serious in Christians than it is in unbelievers. The law always sets before us God’s perspective of sin and causes us to feel the shame of that in which we once walked (cf., 1 Cor. 6:11; Eph. 2:2; 1 John 1:6).
The law is good for us, if used lawfully (cf., 1 Tim. 1:8). It acts like a mirror to show us all the remaining blemishes on our spiritual faces (Note: but law cannot give life, cf., 2 Cor. 3:6; Gal. 3:21; only the Gospel gives life, cf., John 6:63; 10:10, 28; 11:25). The law reminds us of our remaining imperfection and sin that so easily entangles us.
“The law cannot give life only the Gospel gives life.”
It shows us our weakness and inadequacy and inability (cf., Ps. 19:13; Rom. 7; Gal. 3). In Romans 7, Paul argues with great fervor concerning the inability of the law to remedy our own spiritual inability. We can agree in our mind that God’s law is holy, righteous and good and yet still find ourselves utterly helpless to subdue sin and obey God’s law by the very law that we approve. And so, the law leads us back again to our only source of forgiveness, cleansing, mortification and motivation to obey, Christ (cf., Rom. 7:24-25; Gal. 3:24; 1 John 1:9; 2:1).
To be sure, when we sin we will experience our Heavenly Father’s anger (not like Alec Baldwin!) and displeasure but only in a relational not forensic, punitive sense.
“Our Heavenly Father’s anger toward our sin is corrective and administered in love for a good and holy purpose.”
We certainly grieve the Holy Spirit when we sin (cf., Eph. 4:30). The Scriptures give us examples of God being angry with his children and disciplining them, but this is different from wrath (cf., Ps. 30:5; Dan. 9:11). Believers are redeemed from the curse of the law (cf., Gal. 3:13) and have the promise that God will never be wrathful toward them, nor will He condemn them any more (cf., Rom. 8:1). Yet, the curse of the law is sometimes poured out on them (cf., Dan. 9:11). Why? Believers are forgiven but they are far from perfect (cf. 1 John 1:8, 10). They live in an “already but not yet” state. Though believers are already reckoned as righteous they are not yet consummated in righteousness. In this life, the sinful corruption of the old nature remains in a believer (cf., Rom. 7:24). Thus, believers may still expect God to discipline them for their sins (cf., Amos 3:2; Acts 5:1-11; Heb. 12:5-11).
The key point to grasp is this: “Fatherly displeasure” can include anger, but not wrathful punitive anger. Rather, our Heavenly Father’s anger toward our sin is corrective and administered in love for a good and holy purpose.
The Holy Spirit dwells in believers with an intolerant love (cf., James 4:5). Thus, when a believer sins, God’s jealousy is expressed through loving discipline.
The writer of Hebrews brings this out clearly. In Hebrews 12, the author reveals that our Heavenly Father’s discipline, though it “seems” painful and like God’s disfavor, is actually God’s favor!
5 “My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, nor be weary when reproved by him. 6 For the Lord disciplines the one He loves, and chastises every son whom He receives.” 7 It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons. For what son is there whom his father does not discipline? 8 If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons. 9 Besides this, we have had earthly fathers who disciplined us and we respected them. Shall we not much more be subject to the Father of spirits and live? 10 For they disciplined us for a short time as it seemed best to them, but He disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness (this is the good and holy purpose- J.F.). 11 For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it (this again is the good and holy purpose- J.F., Heb. 12:5-11, ESV)
When we stumble and fail, we must always remember to let the Gospel not law have the final word lest our hearts grow faint.
The fact that we remain imperfect in this life does not diminish the merits of Christ’s death, lessen God’s love, or nullify the comfort that we have by virtue of our union with Christ. The truth is Christ never intended for His people to enjoy His spiritual blessings apart from union with Him.
Because we have been justified, we can be assured that all things (even our daily failures) will work together for our good (cf., Rom. 8:28). We can rest in God’s promises even though we battle daily with the sinful, miserable state we received from the first Adam. Because of the Gospel, we can be confident that God will never again be angry with us or rebuke us in a wrathful, punitive sense (Ps. 103:9; Isa. 54:9; Rom. 5:2-5). Because of the Gospel, we will one day be totally free from our remaining sinful state and enjoy God’s grace in a perfect way!
“For His anger is but for a moment, and His favor is for a lifetime. Weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes with the morning” (Ps. 30:5). Commenting on this verse, John Calvin writes,
“But however much God may terrify and humble His faithful servants, with manifold signs of His displeasure, He always besprinkles them with the sweetness of His favour to moderate and assuage their grief. If they weigh, therefore, his anger and his favour in an equal balance, they will always find it verified, that while the former (anger- J.F.) is but for a moment, the latter (favour- J.F.) continues to the end of life; nay it goes beyond it, for it were a grievous mistake to confine the favour of God within the boundaries of this transitory life. And it is unquestionably certain, that none but those whose minds have been raised above the world by a taste of heavenly life really experience this perpetual and uninterrupted manifestation of the divine favour, which enables them to bear their chastisements with cheerfulness.”
If you desire to live a holy life it is imperative that you live by Gospel principles alone.
It is the Spirit who gives life, the flesh profits nothing (cf., John 6:63; 2 Cor. 3:6). The Spirit only works through Gospel principles. He only works by the means that belong to your new state, where you abide in union with Christ by faith. So, if you desire to live a holy life it is imperative that you live by Gospel principles alone.
It is only by understanding God’s discipline in a Gospel-Driven way that your heart will be motivated (i.e., driven) to confess your sins, repent and turn to Christ in humble trust and joyful gratitude.