September 16, 2021

What Does Paul Mean When He Says, “Be Angry and Do Not Sin” (Eph. 4:26)?

Nathan W. Bingham & Derek Thomas
What Does Paul Mean When He Says, “Be Angry and Do Not Sin” (Eph. 4:26)?

Is it ever right for Christians to be angry? Today, Derek Thomas examines the command in Ephesians 4:26 to “be angry and do not sin.”


NATHAN W. BINGHAM: Joining us on the Ligonier campus this week is Ligonier Teaching Fellow Dr. Derek Thomas. Dr. Thomas, what does Paul mean when he says in Ephesians 4:26, "Be angry and do not sin"?

DR. DEREK THOMAS: Nathan, this is a really good question, and actually it's a very difficult question. I remember reading back in the early 1970s Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones' exposition of Ephesians"seven volumes, I think. And I remember reading his sermon on this text"this is forty years ago"I remember being absolutely astonished and greatly helped by that sermon. "Be angry and sin not."

I think the place to start is to say that God is angry. And that Jesus is angry. There's an incident in the Gospels where He's healing someone. There are folk around Him expressing all kinds of theological concerns and missing the whole point. And the gospel writer says, "And Jesus looked at them with anger" (Mark 3:5). So, if it's right for Jesus to be angry"and let's face it, God is angry with our sin but doesn't sin in being angry with our sin"then it is possible for us, by the help of the Holy Spirit, to be angry.

But let me turn that 180 and say, if you're not angry about certain things, there's something decidedly wrong about you. If the thought of millions of unborn children being murdered doesn't make you angry, there's something wrong with you. If you see someone with a colossal disorder, special needs"sin, the fallenness of this world has so misshaped our world"and if that doesn't make you, at least on one level, angry that the world is not what it should be, then there's something wrong with you. If you hear of a dear friend of yours who's been raped"I'm sorry to raise this issue. But somebody comes to you and says, "I've been raped," if that doesn't make you angry, I mean spitting angry, there's something wrong with you. So there's a righteous indignation.

And the problem with our society is that it's tolerant about everything and very intolerant if you're not tolerant, which is the problem. But there's no place for anger in a world that tolerates absolutely everything. And therefore the contemporary view of God, even within the church among Christians, is what David Wells once termed "the weightlessness of God." God is too small. God is just like us. He's just like Santa Claus, if He exists at all. And there's no place for anger in Santa Claus.

So it's a pastoral question, but it's actually a question that really relates to the doctrine of God. Who is God, and what is He like? Is He holy? Is there such a thing as righteous indignation against sin? Does God judge? Does He send people to hell for eternity apart from faith alone in Christ alone, apart from the works of the law? Is Jesus who is spotless, harmless, and undefiled, is He ever angry? Yes, He is. And therefore, there must be occasions when Christians are angry.

You can use the euphemism "You hate sin but love the sinner." And that's easy to say but very difficult to actually explain what on earth that means because sin is intimately related to our person, to who we are. The problem arises, of course, because we are sinners, and anger is very difficult to control. And there are some folk who find it very difficult to control their anger. They're always angry and they're angry about everything. Now, there are things that we need to be angry about, but we don't need to be angry to the same degree about everything. And I think some Christians have that out of shape and everything seems to trigger their anger"people who have no sense of self-control. And we see that in marriages. We see that in relationships. We see it in the church. We see it on Facebook. We see it in social media"people venting their anger, this, that, and the other, without any concern for Christian unity. I mean, back in 2020 in the COVID season, and everyone was angry about everything, the mask issue was an issue to vent anger. And I remember one time saying when somebody would come to me with some kind of pseudoscientific explanation and I would say: "Stop it. We are way past the science. This is about church unity. This is about loving each other." And anger gets in the way.

Anger is so closely tied with sin and the devil that it's hard to keep it in check. And it's hard to find that dividing line between righteous anger and sinful anger. And the one who knows the difference between the two is a wise, wise person indeed.