Wednesday, April 11, 2007

God of Wrath, God of Grace

Have you ever been in a situation where something really funny or exciting happens to you, but when you try to describe the situation to a friend later, they just don't get it? Typically, your only response is, "I guess you had to be there." As a storyteller, I really despise those moments. Of course, I keep telling stories, so what does that say?

Every once in awhile, somebody will ask me, "So, what are you studying at school right now?" This is a dangerous question to ask me, because I am really enjoying graduate school. As a matter of fact, I just finished a paper in a class called "The Doctrine of Grace" in which I was asked to write about some of the insights I gained while taking the course. Among the things that really impacted me was a point the professor made about God's nature throughout time and how His grace relates to that.

This week I thought I'd share the last part of that paper, in an effort to let you see a bit of what I'm studying right now, and let you take a look at this idea about grace. I realize there's a chance that you may finish reading this and think to yourself, "I guess you had to be there." But, I've never let that stop me before, so here we go!
(Don't worry, it's not a tough read- I'm just not that academic!)

Another area in which I have gained a greater understanding is the matter of certain aspects of God’s nature, such as His love and grace, appearing to be in conflict with other aspects,
such as His holiness and justice. It is not unusual to hear people speak of God in the Old Testament as being “judgmental” and characterized by His holiness, or even His wrath. By contrast, God’s nature in the New Testament is most often characterized in His love and grace.

It can be pointed out easily enough that frankly, this is a gross over-generalization. The antagonist however, will sometimes escalate the point by insinuating that this is inconsistent and may go so far as to say that they could not possibly be the same God. Thus, both must be nothing more than the invention of humanity, adapted through time to better fit Man’s image and his desires.

It is of course, true that humans have often misrepresented God and deliberately misinterpreted His Word in an effort to justify their beliefs and actions. It is a much more serious accusation however, to postulate that primary characteristics of God are in conflict when one compares His behavior in the Old Testament (or covenant) with that of the New Testament (or covenant). If this thesis were true, and carried out to its logical end, it would bring only grim options for the Christian. Either one of these conflicting accounts of God is a lie, or God Himself is a fabrication.

Although I think that I have in the past rendered adequate, and theologically accurate responses to these questions, I have never personally been satisfied with any answer I have given on this subject. It is absolutely reasonable to me that characteristics like holiness and love could both exist in God’s nature. But explaining this in any succinct fashion has always proven to be difficult.

Here again, I think I have found some clarity. The illustration in class that compared a stretched rubber band with these opposing characteristics really helped me visualize the concept. This idea clearly demonstrates how traits like justice and holiness can co-exist with mercy and love, exerting equal tension in the nature of God, who is the embodiment of perfection.

If they exert equal tension, it is reasonable that His holiness would always respond to sin with wrath, while His love would always respond with grace. It is also reasonable to assume then, that He has responded in both of these ways throughout all of time. So there would be evidence of both grace and wrath in the Old Testament as well as in the New Testament, regardless of any covenant status.

God’s mercy and love are expressed in the New Testament in memorable passages such as 1 John 4:7-8 which states, “Dear friends, let us love one another for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.” We also see it in John 3:16 when Jesus says, “For God so loved the world that He gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” It is important to note that this scripture clearly indicates that God extended love and mercy before the New Covenant was established, since these words were spoken by Christ before His death and resurrection.

It is also critical to see areas in the New Testament where God’s holiness and wrath were shown. The death of Ananias and his wife Sapphira as recorded in Acts 5:1-10 is a vivid example. But the greatest proof that God’s holy nature is constantly in tension with His love is found in the cross. Nothing in all of creation was worthy enough to provide the sacrifice needed to pay for Mankind’s sins that stood as an affront to God’s holiness. Justice was required, and Jesus provided the perfect propitiatory sacrifice.

As we move to the Old Testament, providing evidence of God’s holiness, judgment, and wrath is largely unnecessary, as these elements of his nature are often emphasized (and overemphasized) here. Perhaps people are so transfixed by these stories of judgment because they are literally some of the most spectacular and dramatic displays in the Bible: a raging flood; fire from heaven; a river turning to blood; swarms of insects; the death of every first-born male.

But there is more than wrath and judgment in the Old Testament; there is justification and love. The section of class and in the commentary that covered Romans chapter four was a significant part of this course for me, as it pointed to this fact. Paul states plainly In Romans 4:2 that “If, in fact, Abraham was justified by works, he had something to boast about--but not before God.” He is explaining that Abraham was not justified by his works, but instead “believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness,” as Genesis 15:6 tells us. This is evidence that Abraham was, in fact, justified by his faith. And this evidence leads to an even more crucial observation. If Abraham was justified by his faith, it means that God’s grace was in place even in the Old Testament.

The proposition that “everyone who has ever been saved has been saved by grace” was perhaps the greatest insight I gained in this course. God’s nature has never changed, and from the fall of Man, His method for saving us has been the same.

“For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and
this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by
works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s
workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works which
God prepared in advance for us to do.” (Eph. 2:8-10)

Thanks for reading!

In Him We Live,


Wednesday, April 4, 2007


"It was now about the sixth hour, and darkness came over the whole land until the ninth hour, for the sun stopped shining. And the curtain of the temple was torn in two." -Luke 23:44-45 (NIV)

It's Spring break time here. I for one greatly appreciate the fact that our school system schedules the time off late enough that northern Ohio actually begins to show signs of the new season. The weather is getting warmer, flowers are beginning to come up, lawns are turning green and the sun is actually shining again! Today we had temperatures in the low 70's and my daughters spent most of the day on a picnic with their Grandma. Their timing was perfect, because not long after they got back home, it started to rain.

I had spent part of the afternoon holed up in our basement family room reading a book for one of my classes, so I was surprised at how quickly it had gotten cloudy. But I guess I didn't have any reason to be shocked; weather is pretty unpredictable this time of the year. It really isn't unusual to have sunshine and blue skies turn into clouds and rain.

Maybe that's why the darkness that is described at the time of Jesus' death sometimes seems to get overlooked or trivialized in our minds- as if it was just God's version of "dramatic lighting." Now don't misunderstand me; I know the darkness is just a part of the overall story of Christ's death. But it's a part that has significance.

All the gospel writers that talk about it say that the darkness "came over the whole land." We're not talking about a gloomy day or isolated cloud cover; they are literally saying that it got dark everywhere. As if it were night.

At about noon.

And it stayed that dark for three hours.

When God alters something about creation itself to make a point, it's more than a detail.

Don't believe me? Talk to Noah.

It's pretty interesting to note other places in Scripture that talk about the sun giving way to sudden darkness are usually referring to a time of God's judgement (Joel 2:10, 30-31 or Amos 8:9). Jesus is carrying the weight of every sin that has already been committed and every one that ever will be in the future. The penalty He is choosing to pay will cost nothing less than His perfect life as a sacrifice. When you stop and think about it, it makes sense. God chose to darken the sun to parallel the immense darkness that was being heaped on His Son.

"God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God." -2Cor. 5:21

Take a moment and imagine that scene. The wind is blowing on the hilltop. The crowd is shouting insults at Jesus. The soldiers are gambling for His clothes. The religious leaders are smug as they talk to the crowd and each other.

Then, darkness.

It's amazing to me, but none of the authors record any sudden reactions from the crowd. It's as if they simply refuse to recognize it. What do you think was happening? Were they standing around uneasily, trying to pass this amazing event off as a change in the weather? How could they not realize that this darkness was a result of their actions; their sin; their darkness?

I suppose it's what keeps you and I from realizing the same thing, or at least from remembering it.

I am not suggesting that you should live in guilt, as if God hasn't forgiven you- if you are in Christ, your debt is paid. Period. But it is easy to begin to take something valuable for granted if we forget how much it cost.

This week as you celebrate Christ's resurrection, remember the darkness and the cost- and let that remind you of your rescue, and of grace!

In Him We Live,