Of the Attribution of Passions & Affections, Anger, Fear, Repentance unto God

by John Owen

Of the attribution of passions and affections, anger, fear, repentance, unto God—In what sense it is done in the Scripture.

HIS next inquiry about the nature of God respects the attribution of several affections and passions unto him in the Scriptures, of whose sense and meaning he thus expresseth his apprehension:—

Ques. Are there not, according to the perpetual tenor of the Scriptures, affections and passions in God, as anger, fury, zeal, wrath, love, hatred, mercy, grace, jealousy, repentance, grief, joy, fear?

Concerning which he labours to make the Scriptures determine in the affirmative.

1. The main of Mr Biddle's design, in his questions about the nature of God, being to deprive the Deity of its distinct persons, its omnipresence, prescience, and therein all other infinite perfections, he endeavours to make him some recompense for all that loss by ascribing to him in the foregoing query a human visible shape, and in this, human, turbulent affections and passions. Commonly, where men will not ascribe to the Lord that which is his due, he gives them up to assign that unto him which he doth abhor, Jer. 44:15–17. Neither is it easily determinable whether be the greater abomination. By the first, the dependence of men upon the true God is taken off; by the latter, their hope is fixed on a false. This, on both sides, at present is Mr B.'s sad employment. The Lord lay it not to his charge, but deliver him from the snare of Satan, wherein he is "taken alive at his pleasure"! 2 Tim. 2:26.

2. The things here assigned to God are ill associated, if to be understood after the same manner. Mercy and grace we acknowledge to be attributes of God; the rest mentioned are by none of Mr B.'s companions esteemed any other than acts of his will, and those metaphorically assigned to him.

3. To the whole I ask, whether these things are in the Scriptures ascribed properly unto God, denoting such affections and passions in him as those in us are which are so termed? or whether they are assigned to him and spoken of him metaphorically only, in reference to his outward works and dispensations, correspondent and answering to the actings of men in whom such affections are, and under the power whereof they are in those actings? If the latter be affirmed, then as such an attribution of them unto God is eminently consistent with all his infinite perfections and blessedness, so there can be no difference about this question and the answers given thereunto, all men readily acknowledging that in this sense the Scripture doth ascribe all the affections mentioned unto God, of which we say as he of old, Ταῦτα ἀνθρωποπαθῶς μὲν λέγονται, θεοπρεπῶς δὲ νοοῦνται. But this, I fear, will not serve Mr B.'s turn. The very phrase and manner of expression used in this question, the plain intimation that is in the forehead thereof of its author's going off from the common received interpretation of these attributions unto God, do abundantly manifest that it is their proper significancy which he contends to fasten on God, and that the affections mentioned are really and properly in him as they are in us. This being evident to be his mind and intendment, as we think his anthropopathism in this query not to come short in folly and madness of his anthropomorphitism in that foregoing, so I shall proceed to the removal of this insinuation in the way and method formerly insisted on.

Mr B.'s masters tell us "That these affections are vehement commotions of the will of God, whereby he is carried out earnestly to the object of his desires, or earnestly declines and abhors what falls not out gratefully or acceptably to him." I shall first speak of them in general, and then to the particulars (some or all) mentioned by Mr B.:—

First, In general, that God is perfect and perfectly blessed, I suppose will not be denied; it cannot be but by denying that he is God. He that is not perfect in himself and perfectly blessed is not God. To that which is perfect in any kind nothing is wanting in that kind. To that which is absolutely perfect nothing is wanting at all. He who is blessed is perfectly satisfied and filled, and hath no farther desire for supply. He who is blessed in himself is all-sufficient for himself. If God want or desire any thing for himself, he is neither perfect nor blessed. To ascribe, then, affections to God properly (such as before mentioned), is to deprive him of his perfection and blessedness. The consideration of the nature of these and the like affections will make this evident.

1. Affections, considered in themselves, have always an incomplete, imperfect act of the will or volition joined with them. They are something that lies between the firm purpose of the soul and the execution of that purpose. The proper actings of affections lie between these two; that is, in an incomplete, tumultuary volition. That God is not obnoxious to such volitions and incomplete actings of the will, besides the general consideration of his perfections and blessedness premised, is evident from that manner of procedure which is ascribed to him. His purposes and his works comprise all his actings. As the Lord hath purposed, so hath he done. "He worketh all things after the counsel of his own will." "Who hath known his mind? or who hath been his counsellor? Of him, and through him, and to him, are all things."

2. They have their dependence on that wherewith he in whom they are is affected; that is, they owe their rise and continuance to something without him in whom they are. A man's fear ariseth from that or them of whom he is afraid; by them it is occasioned, on them it depends. Whatever affects any man (that is, the stirring of a suitable affection), in all that frame of mind and soul, in all the volitions and commotions of will which so arise from thence, he depends on something without him. Yea, our being affected with something without lies at the bottom of most of our purposes and resolves. Is it thus with God, with him who is I AM? Exod 3:14. Is he in dependence upon any thing without him? Is it not a most eminent contradiction to speak of God in dependence on any other thing? Must not that thing either be God or be reduced to some other without and besides him, who is God, as the causes of all our affections are? "God is in one mind, and who can turn him? what his soul desireth, that he doeth," Job 23:13.

3. Affections are necessarily accompanied with change and mutability; yea, he who is affected properly is really changed; yea, there is no more unworthy change or alteration than that which is accompanied with passion, as is the change that is wrought by the affections ascribed to God. A sedate, quiet, considerate alteration is far less inglorious and unworthy than that which is done in and with passion. Hitherto we have taken God upon his testimony, that he is the "LORD, and he changeth not," Mal. 3:6; that "with him there is neither change nor shadow of turning;"—it seems, like the worms of the earth, he varieth every day.

4. Many of the affections here ascribed to God do eminently denote impotence; which, indeed, on this account, both by Socinians and Arminians, is directly ascribed to the Almighty. They make him affectionately and with commotion of will to desire many things in their own nature not impossible, which yet he cannot accomplish or bring about (of which I have elsewhere spoken); yea, it will appear that the most of the affections ascribed to God by Mr B., taken in a proper sense, are such as are actually ineffectual, or commotions through disappointments, upon the account of impotency or defect of power.

Corol. To ascribe affections properly to God is to make him weak, imperfect, dependent, changeable, and impotent.

Secondly, Let a short view be taken of the particulars, some or all of them, that Mr B. chooseth to instance in. "Anger, fury, wrath, zeal" (the same in kind, only differing in degree and circumstances), are the first he instances in; and the places produced to make good this attribution to God are, Num. 25:3, 4; Ezek. 5:13; Exod. 32:11, 12; Rom. 1:18.

1. That mention is made of the anger, wrath, and fury of God in the Scripture is not questioned. Num. 25:4, Deut. 13:17, Josh. 7:26, Ps. 78:31, Isa. 13:9, Deut. 29:24, Judges 2:14, Ps. 74:1, 69:24, Isa. 30:30, Lam. 2:6, Ezek. 5:15, Ps. 78:49, Isa. 34:2, 2 Chron. 28:11, Ezra 10:14, Hab. 3:8, 12, are farther testimonies thereof. The words also in the original, in all the places mentioned, express or intimate perturbation of mind, commotion of spirit, corporeal mutation of the parts of the body, and the like distempers of men acting under the power of that passion. The whole difference is about the intendment of the Holy Ghost in these attributions, and whether they are properly spoken of God, asserting this passion to be in him in the proper significancy of the words, or whether these things be not taken ἀνθρωποπαθῶς, and to be understood θεοπρεπῶς, in such a sense as may answer the meaning of the figurative expression, assigning them their truth to the utmost, and yet to be interpreted in a suitableness to divine perfection and blessedness.

2. The anger, then, which in the Scripture is assigned to God, we say denotes two things:—

(1.) His vindictive justice, or constant and immutable will of rendering vengeance for sin. So God's purpose of the demonstration of his justice is called his being "willing to show his wrath" or anger, Rom. 9:22; so God's anger and his judgments are placed together, Ps. 7:6; and in that anger he judgeth, verse 8. And in this sense is the "wrath of God" said to be "revealed from heaven," Rom. 1:18; that is, the vindictive justice of God against sin to be manifested in the effects of it, or the judgments sent and punishments inflicted on and throughout the world.

(2.) By anger, wrath, zeal, fury, the effects of anger are denoted: Rom. 3:5, "Is God unrighteous who taketh vengeance?" The words are, ὁ ἐπιφέρων τὴν ὀργήν,—"who inflicteth or bringeth anger on man;" that is, sore punishments, such as proceed from anger; that is, God's vindictive justice. And Eph. 5:6, "For these things cometh the wrath of God upon the children of disobedience." Is it the passion or affection of anger in God that Mr B. talks of, that comes upon the children of disobedience? or is it indeed the effect of his justice for this sin? Thus the day of judgment is called the "day of wrath" and of "anger," because it is the day of the "revelation of the righteous judgment of God:" Rom. 2:5, "After thy hardness," etc. In the place of Ezekiel (chap. v. 13) mentioned by Mr B., the Lord tells them he will "cause his fury to rest upon them," and "accomplish it upon them." I ask whether he intends this of any passion in him (and if so, how a passion in God can rest upon a man), or the judgments which for their iniquities he did inflict? We say, then, anger is not properly ascribed to God, but metaphorically, denoting partly his vindictive justice, whence all punishments flow, partly the effects of it in the punishments themselves, either threatened or inflicted, in their terror and bitterness, upon the account of what is analogous therein to our proceeding under the power of that passion; and so is to be taken in all the places mentioned by Mr B. For,—

3. Properly, in the sense by him pointed to, anger, wrath, etc., are not in God. Anger is defined by the philosopher to be, ὄρεξις μετὰ λύπης τιμωρίας φαινομένης, διὰ φαινομένην ὀλιγωρίαν,—"desire joined with grief of that which appears to be revenge, for an appearing neglect or contempt." To this grief, he tells you, there is a kind of pleasure annexed, arising from the vehement fancy which an angry person hath of the revenge he apprehends as future,—which, saith he, "is like the fancy of them that dream,"2—and he ascribes this passion mostly to weak, impotent persons. Ascribe this to God, and you leave him nothing else. There is not one property of his nature wherewith it is consistent. If he be properly and literally angry, and furious, and wrathful, he is moved, troubled, perplexed, desires revenge, and is neither blessed nor perfect. But of these things in our general reasons against the propriety of these attributions afterward.

4. Mr. B. hath given us a rule in his preface, that when any thing is ascribed to God in one place which is denied of him in another, then it is not properly ascribed to him. Now, God says expressly that "fury" or anger "is not in him," Isa. 27:4; and therefore it is not properly ascribed to him.

5. Of all the places where mention is made of God's repentings, or his repentance, there is the same reason. Exod. 32:14, Gen. 6:6, 7, Judges 10:16, Deut. 30:9, are produced by Mr. B. That one place of 1 Sam. 15:29, where God affirms that he "knoweth no repentance," casts all the rest under a necessity of an interpretation suitable unto it. Of all the affections or passions which we are obnoxious to, there is none that more eminently proclaims imperfection, weakness, and want in sundry kinds, than this of repentance. If not sins, mistakes, and miscarriages (as for the most part they are), yet disappointment, grief, and trouble, are always included in it. So is it in that expression, Gen. 6:6, "It repented the LORD that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him at his heart." What but his mistake and great disappointment, by a failing of wisdom, foresight, and power, can give propriety to these attributions unto God? The change God was going then to work in his providence on the earth was such or like that which men do when they repent of a thing, being "grieved at the heart" for what they had formerly done. So are these things spoken of God to denote the kind of the things which he doth, not the nature of God himself; otherwise such expressions as these would suit him, whose frame of spirit and heart is so described: "Had I seen what would have been the issue of making man, I would never have done it. Would I had never been so overseen as to have engaged in such a business! What have I now got by my rashness? nothing but sorrow and grief of heart redounds to me." And do these become the infinitely blessed God?

6. Fear is added, from Deut. 32:26, 27. "Fear," saith the wise man, "is a betraying of those succours which reason offereth;"—nature's avoidance of an impendent evil; its contrivance to flee and prevent what it abhors, being in a probability of coming upon it; a turbulent weakness. This God forbids in us, upon the account of his being our God, Isa. 35:4; "Fear not, O worm Jacob," etc., chap. 41:14. Everywhere he asserts fear to be unfit for them who depend on him and his help, who is able in a moment to dissipate, scatter, and reduce to nothing, all the causes of their fear. And if there ought to be no fear where such succour is ready at hand, sure there is none in Him who gives it. Doubtless, it were much better to exclude the providence of God out of the world than to assert him afraid properly and directly of future events. The schools say truly, "Quod res sunt futuræ, a voluntate Dei est (effectiva vel permissiva)." How, then, can God be afraid of what he knows will, and purposeth shall, come to pass? He doth, he will do, things in some likeness to what we do for the prevention of what we are afraid of. He will not scatter his people, that their adversaries may not have advantage to trample over them. When we so act as to prevent any thing that, unless we did so act, would befall us, it is because we are afraid of the coming of that thing upon us: hence is the reason of that attribution unto God. That properly He should be afraid of what comes to pass who knows from eternity what will so do, who can with the breath of his mouth destroy all the objects of his dislike, who is infinitely wise, blessed, all-sufficient, and the sovereign disposer of the lives, breath, and ways of all the sons of men, is fit for Mr. B. and no man else to affirm. "All the nations are before him as the drop of the bucket, and the dust of the balance, as vanity, as nothing; he upholdeth them by the word of his power; in him all men live, and move, and have their being," and can neither live, nor act, nor be without him; their life, and breath, and all their ways, are in his hands; he brings them to destruction, and says, "Return, ye children of men;" and must he needs be properly afraid of what they will do to him and against him?

7. Of God's jealousy and hatred, mentioned from Ps. 5:4, 5, Exod. 20:5, Deut. 32:21, there is the same reason. Such effects as these things in us produce shall they meet withal who provoke him by their blasphemies and abominations. Of love, mercy, and grace, the condition is something otherwise: principally they denote God's essential goodness and kindness, which is eminent amongst his infinite perfections; and secondarily the effects thereof, in and through Jesus Christ, are denoted by these expressions. To manifest that neither they nor any thing else, as they properly intend any affections or passions of the mind, any commotions of will, are properly attributed to God, unto what hath been spoken already these ensuing considerations may be subjoined:—

(1.) Where no cause of stirring up affections or passions can have place or be admitted, there no affections are to be admitted; for to what end should we suppose that whereof there can be no use to eternityA? If it be impossible any affection in God should be stirred up or acted, is it not impossible any such should be in him? The causes stirring up all affections are the access of some good desired, whence joy, hope, desire, etc., have their spring; or the approach of some evil to be avoided, which occasions fear, sorrow, anger, repentance, and the like. Now, if no good can be added to God, whence should joy and desire be stirred up in him? if no evil can befall him, in himself or any of his concernments, whence should he have fear, sorrow, or repentance? Our goodness extends not to him; he hath no need of us or our sacrifices, Ps. 16:2, 50:8–10; Job 35:6–8. "Can a man be profitable unto God, as he that is wise may be profitable to himself? Is it any pleasure to the Almighty, that thou art righteous? or is it gain to him, that thou makest thy ways perfect?" chap. 22:2, 3.

(2.) The apostle tells us that God is "blessed for ever," Rom. 9:5; "He is the blessed and only Potentate," 1 Tim. 6:15; "God all-sufficient," Gen. 17:1. That which is inconsistent with absolute blessedness and all-sufficiency is not to be ascribed to God; to do so casts him down from his excellency. But can he be blessed, is he all-sufficient, who is tossed up and down with hope, joy, fear, sorrow, repentance, anger, and the like? Doth not fear take off from absolute blessedness? Grant that God's fear doth not long abide, yet whilst it doth so, he is less blessed than he was before and than he is after his fear ceaseth. When he hopes, is he not short in happiness of that condition which he attains in the enjoyment of what he hoped for? and is he not lower when he is disappointed and falls short of his expectation? Did ever the heathens speak with more contempt of what they worshipped? Formerly the pride of some men heightened them to fancy themselves to be like God, without passions or affections, Ps. 50:21; being not able to abide in their attempt against their own sense and experience, it is now endeavoured to make God like to us, in having such passions and affections. My aim is brevity, having many heads to speak unto. Those who have written on the attributes of God,—his self-sufficiency and blessedness, simplicity, immutability, etc.,—are ready to tender farther satisfaction to them who shall desire it.


Owen, J. (n.d.). The works of John Owen.(Vol. 12)

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