Balancing the kindness and the severity of GodWritten by Subby Szterszky
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“Note then the kindness and the severity of God: severity towards those who have fallen, but God’s kindness to you, provided you continue in his kindness. Otherwise you too will be cut off” (Romans 11:22).
The apostle Paul delivered this sober warning near the end of his theological magnum opus, written to the church at Rome. It’s not a verse likely to show up on inspirational calendars or greeting cards. The part about God’s kindness is fine, of course – but God’s severity?
Most of us are drawn to the love and mercy of God, but his wrath and judgment are a different matter. We find it challenging to reconcile those two categories and can even be tempted to sidestep the latter in favour of the former.
To do so, however, is to distort who God has revealed himself to be, as well as our understanding of who we are. It’s only as we hold these qualities of God in balance that we can grow in appreciating his beauty and grace, who he is and what he has done for us.
God in one word
God is infinite, eternal, all-knowing, all-powerful, present everywhere at the same time. He is perfectly good, perfectly wise, perfectly just, perfectly loving. Father, Son and Holy Spirit, one God in three persons, has existed in an eternal relationship of perfect love since before he created the universe. God refers to himself as “I AM,” self-existent, completely independent and free, the prime mover on whom all of reality depends. Although he inhabits every moment and every molecule of his creation, he is separate from it and far beyond it. The vast cosmos is a mere speck in his hand. His thoughts and ways are as far above ours as the farthest galaxies are above our planet.
The Scriptures have a word that sums up all these divine attributes: holiness. God is holy – in fact, he’s described as thrice holy, corresponding to the three persons of the Trinity. He is utterly distinct from his creation, a unique order of being infinitely beyond our own, and beyond our understanding. From end to end, the Scriptures declare his holiness through his actions, purity and glory. They also call his people to worship him in the beauty of his holiness, and all nature to shout for joy at his sovereign goodness.
The Old Testament sacrificial system pictured the separation between a holy God and sinful humanity, and anticipated how God would heal that breach through the blood sacrifice of his Son. Despite the sinfulness of his people, God assured them he was slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. He forgave them countless times for the sake of his own holy name, which he declared would be glorified by all people and all of creation. From Moses at the burning bush to John on the island of Patmos, people who encountered God would fall to the ground in fear before the Lord would reassure them not to be afraid.
In our time, we speak much about the love of God, as well we should. But we speak comparatively little about his holiness, as if it were an uncomfortable topic, rather than the sum of everything that God is, meant to drive us to wonder and worship.
Brokenness and sin
The word we most commonly use at present to describe the effects of the Fall is brokenness. This is a good word and scripturally accurate. Because of the Fall, suffering and death entered the world and affected all of creation. Living things die. Materials wear out. Matter and energy tend toward entropy. Violence and disease are endemic. Human history is a bloody record of this brokenness, marked by warfare, cruelty and injustice in its many forms. Human relationships are broken, as are human minds, bodies and spirits.
However, brokenness by itself can be misinterpreted as nothing more than a social and physiological disease, something for which we are not to blame. While the Scriptures do address brokenness, they speak far more often in terms of sin or one of its synonyms, such as iniquity or transgression. These words denote guilt before God, both individual and corporate. Because of the original sin of our first parents, Adam and Eve, each of us is a sinner by birth and by choice. Although our sins cause harm to others, to our community and to ourselves, they are primarily against God, expressions of unbelief and rebellion.
Because God is holy and just, he cannot tolerate the presence of sin. If he did, he would no longer be holy or just. He would no longer be God. Sin must have consequences. After Adam and Eve’s sin, God placed a curse on humanity and all of creation. Suffering and death would reign. God would continue to punish sin and express his righteous wrath against it. Those who don’t repent he will condemn to an eternity spent in hell. It’s a horrific concept without a doubt. But since our sin is against an infinitely holy God, his justice requires an eternal punishment.
Much like God’s holiness, the subjects of sin, divine wrath and hell aren’t commonly discussed in some contemporary church circles. They’re unpleasant topics, to be sure. But Scripture has much to say about them, especially Jesus, who spoke more about them than anyone else in the Bible. Embracing them as part of God’s truth makes his love and grace that much sweeter.
Getting the Gospel right
“For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received,” wrote the apostle Paul, “that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures” (1 Corinthians 15:3-4).
This is the Gospel in one simple statement, which Paul describes as of first importance. Christ died for our sins, was buried and rose on the third day, according to the Scriptures. It’s the heart of the Christian faith, without which there is no Christianity.
That hasn’t stopped people in every era from twisting that message to conform with personal and cultural biases. At present, concepts such as absolute truth, holiness, sin and judgment are out of vogue. A God of righteous wrath will not do, only a God of love, and love is defined as accepting everyone’s beliefs and behaviour without judgment.
As a result, Jesus is reduced to an example and nothing more, and sin is merely a failure to recognize that we’re already fine as we are. If anything, Jesus’ death reconciled us to one another and to the world we’ve damaged but had nothing to do with reconciling us to God. Instead of “repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand,” the message is “you do you.” Rather than being helpless without Jesus, we’re told we are enough. In place of the truth that sets us free, we’re to embrace our own opinions and feelings as “our truth.”
Paradoxically, this supposed tolerance and rejection of judgment has led to one of the most merciless, judgmental cultural milieus in recent memory. Social media is rife with virtue signalling, performative righteousness and cancel culture as people scramble to display their tribal affiliation. The slightest verbal misstep or support for an unpopular opinion brings vitriolic attacks and expressions of hatred. Such a person is considered beyond redemption, never mind respect or a fair hearing. Tragically these trends are as apparent among professed Christians as among secularists.
By contrast, the true Gospel humbles us. It shows us we are helpless, hell-deserving sinners under God’s righteous judgment. But it also shows us that God, in his unfathomable love for us, poured out the wrath we deserved on his Son Jesus. This is the reason Jesus cried out on the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” It’s also why he prayed in the garden to his Father that the cup might pass him by. This cup is a symbol of God’s wrath which sinners must drink, and Jesus drank it for us, to the last drop. The worst thing we’ve ever done or thought, the thing we dare not share with our dearest love or most intimate confidant, Jesus died for.
Critics have labelled this as “cosmic child abuse,” but that’s a profound mischaracterization of the Gospel. The eternal triune God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, perfect in wisdom and power, planned it before they created the cosmos. Each member of the Trinity, equal in glory, joyfully took on their role to execute this plan at the perfect moment in history. God didn’t do this reluctantly or out of compulsion, but because he loved us and chose to reconcile us to himself. The only way to accomplish this was through the sacrifice of Jesus, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. The Scriptures refer to this act by the Greek work hilasterion, commonly translated “propitiation” or “expiation.” A clearer translation for modern readers would be “atoning sacrifice” or “mercy seat,” which is the literal meaning of the Greek word. The idea is of a blood sacrifice that turns aside the wrath of God and secures his favour.
To some modern people, both outside and within the church, this sounds brutal, even repulsive. And it should. The cross was not pretty, because our sin is not pretty. But the cross is also beautiful, the place where God’s mercy and justice embrace one another. Through Jesus’ sacrifice, we’re not only forgiven all our sins, past, present and future, but we’re also clothed with his perfect righteousness. When we repent and trust him, we’re adopted as his brothers and sisters, and as daughters and sons of God, who sings over us with joy. As Tim Keller put it, the Gospel tells us we’re far worse than we ever imagined, and far more loved than we could ever dream.
Knowing God as he is
“The Lord passed in front of him and proclaimed: The Lord – the Lord is a compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger and abounding in faithful love and truth, maintaining faithful love to a thousand generations, forgiving iniquity, rebellion, and sin. But he will not leave the guilty unpunished, bringing the consequences of the fathers’ iniquity on the children and grandchildren to the third and fourth generation” (Exodus 34:6-7).
God revealed himself to Moses with these words, and variations of it resound throughout the Old Testament. God’s love is the major note, sounding front and centre. But a note of his judgment is also present, the two strains combining in a harmonious ode to the character of God.
This theme is taken up and builds to a climax in the New Testament in the person of God’s Son. Jesus is pure kindness and compassion, describes himself as humble and gentle, and welcomes everyone to come to him for rest and acceptance. At the same time, he calls everyone to repent, deny themselves, take up their cross and follow him. When he returns at the end of time, he will judge everyone who has ever lived. Those who have followed him in truth he will invite into everlasting joy with him and his Father. The rest he will send away into eternal punishment.
It can be difficult for us to reconcile these aspects of God’s character, and much easier to just think of him as loving and nothing else. God is love, to be sure, but he is also just, and these traits are not in conflict. In fact, they’re inseparable. If God were not loving, he couldn’t be just, and if he were not just, he couldn’t be loving.
Above all else, God is holy, and he calls us to be holy because he is holy. All his divine attributes – his love and mercy as well as his justice and wrath – combine to display his holiness and glory. Like a fine Renaissance painting, the darker shades add richness and depth, making the lighter subjects all the more bright and beautiful. Held in proper balance, the combination of God’s kindness and severity shouldn’t drive us from him but rather draw us to him. After Jesus had spoken some hard truths, many of his disciples stopped following him. When he asked the Twelve if they wanted to leave as well, Peter answered, “Lord, to whom will we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God” (John 6:68-69).
In his high priestly prayer just before his arrest, Jesus prayed that his followers would be sanctified by the truth of his Word, see his glory, share his joy, and be completely united with him and his Father forever. He defined eternal life as knowing God the Father and the one he has sent – Jesus himself. As his daughters and sons, we want to know God as he truly is, even in his attributes that may perplex or disturb us. After all, his ways and thoughts are as far beyond us as the vast stretches of the cosmos are beyond our world. Knowing God in his fullness can only lead us to deeper wonder, joy and worship – which is what God planned for us since before he created the universe.
Subby Szterszky is the managing editor of Focus on Faith and Culture, an e-newsletter produced by Focus on the Family Canada.
© 2023 Focus on the Family (Canada) Association. All rights reserved.
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