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,



Cheryl said...

I feel like I just read the cliff notes and can pass this class (ok, probably not - that's why I keep up with your blog!)
I had never thought of God as displaying all those aspects of His nature in both the Old and New, but I can catch of glimmer of that now. (Either that or I'm just use to the way you teach :-))
I guess I was one that saw two different aspects displayed at two different times.
It is so exciting how God opens my heart more and more to His teachings.

mike_and/or_kara said...

With regard to the Christian view of God, it's seems easy for folks to go to far on either side.

Either they live in fear - always worried that they're not doing enought to please God and get past the pearly gates.
They take grace for granted and say, I'm forgiven no matter what I do! Sort of a laissez-faire Christianity.

Jeff said...

I agree Mike- humanity does seem to have a penchant for taking things to extremes. Unfortunately in this instance (like many others) it literally means distorting the truth. I think Paul's words in Eph. 2:8-10 were written to guide people away from one extreme, and Romans 6:1-2 was written to guide them away from the other: "What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means! We died to sin; how can we live in it any longer?"

Fred said...

The captivating thing about grace to me is the transformaion in our identity from a vessel separated from God, to the embrace of a forgiving Father.

"I am free to run."

Grace looks like God's weakness. It appears that He drops the wrath and judgment to extend grace and love.

I appreciate the comments I see here and the concept of grace & wrath being present under both covenants is pivotal.

Whenever I hear covenant, I think about marriage. My wife must take all of me. If I changed completely after entering into this covenant with her, she would be wondering what to do with me. (she still wonders this from time to time) God is the ultimate example of faithfulness and authenticity, the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow.

Susie B. said...

Jeff, I'm always hesitant to leave a comment out of fear of either being too philosophical or just not completely "getting" what it is you're attempting to convey. I've finally decided that no matter what, you need to know that there are probably more of us out here reading your blog than you realize. We're just too chicken to comment.

With that aside, I can only share that my desire in my personal walk is to never tire of being grateful for God's love and grace at the same time being fully aware of the fact that He holds my life in His hands -- in other words He has the option of giving me my next breath or not. If I did not have a healthy fear of a vengeful God, I would probably not be where I am today - it has definitely kept me from making some of the worse mistakes in my life (one of them being divorce). His grace and love are awesome, but His judgement and wrath undeniable, and as believers we all can stand to keep that in mind.

Miss you loads,
-Susie B.

whooper and whoopette said...

I write today in the aftermath of Virginia Tech's massacre. I pray that many may come to Christ due to this tragedy when they have never known Him before. I pray that many will return to Him if then have been apart from Him and seek forgiveness that His grace will cover through their faith in Christ Jesus.

Amy said...

Once again I am enlightened in your presence. Having experience Grace and justice I have come to appreciate both. God could not be true to himself and then completely trustworthy to us if he was wishy washy in any of his ways or judgements. Last night at Bible Study one of the newer believers was asking questions about Isaiah and how God would allow the closing of the hearts and eyes so that people couldn't not see and believe. It was a difficult thing to explain that it was their own rebellion that had caused this judgement to fall on them. Most people 'love the grace' but fail to realize that has come at a great price. The reconciliation of man to God came through the supreme love of the Father in Christ. Our 'watered down' gospel 'happy, happy, joy, joy' really doesn't expose the sinner to the extreme depth of his need of this savior. Sometimes a person will realize it as they travel on this journey. Sometimes people never see it. Is this a futher example of 'seeing and seeing but never seeing and hearing and hearing but never hearing?' I'm afraid so. One of the most frightening things that the Lord said was something to the effect that he wondered if he would find faith when he returned. So truly grateful for the grace. But there is so much more to this Christian walk. Taking up the cross and following him is more than just a light duty soldier might imagine.
Or I may be wrong. And maybe that's what grace is truly about.

Damon said...

I hope you got an A+ in your class.

I never can get enough of your story telling. This is why God wants us all to Fellowship together and take time out with each other. We can discuss him and get to learn from individuals more wise than us. Remember it is God that gives wisdom to those who ask. I think Jeff asks a lot for wisdom.

I also agree with mike_and/or_kara.

mike_and/or_kara said...

Easy to see how entire doctrines and denominations are born out of this pivotal concept.

Some play Russian roulette with their eternal life and never put fact (God's word) to why they believe what they believe.

And that's it and that's the only thing I need, is this. I don't need this or this. Just this ashtray. And this paddle game, the ashtray and the paddle game and that's all I need. And this remote control. The ashtray, the paddle game, and the remote control, and that's all I need. And these matches. The ashtray, and these matches, and the remote control and the paddle ball. And this lamp. The ashtray, this paddle game and the remote control and the lamp and that's all I need. And that's all I need too. I don't need one other thing, not one - I need this. The paddle game, and the chair, and the remote control, and the matches, for sure. And this. And that's all I need. The ashtray, the remote control, the paddle game, this magazine and the chair.
And I don't need one other thing, except my dog.
I don't need my dog.
- Navin R. Johnson