Q – It seems people get so sold on the idea of God being love that they can’t accept that God’s justice and holiness are also part of his character.
Jim – Exactly. It is a matter of misplaced emphasis. God is indeed love. But, both times that the phrase “God is love” appears in Scripture – in 1 John 4:8 and 16 – the context is not concerning the character or attributes of God. It is concerning the character that ought to be exhibited by Christians. The reason we ought to act in love is in order to reflect the nature of our Father, because “God is love.”
But, that is not the central message of Scripture. The central message of Scripture is that God is Holy. He is separate, above, wholly distinct, and completely without sin, corruption or evil. That is what theologians call His “primary attribute.” All of His other attributes, wonderful as they are, flow from that primary attribute. Both His love and His wrath flow from the fact that He is Holy. Both His grace and His judgment flow from His holiness. Both His acts of creation and His acts of destruction flow from His central, primary holiness.
Now, if love were His primary attribute, we would have to explain how love motivated Him to flood the world, bury Korah and his band, destroy the Egyptians, or pronounce judgment on the world and send folk to Hell. And, that’s the exact dichotomy that too many theologians struggle with because they start in the wrong place. Then, they end up with the Roman Catholic version of Universal Atonement where even Satan will one day be converted because an “all-loving God” could never live happily and satisfied if anyone were suffering anywhere in His universe.
But, a Holy God can.
A Holy God can live quite contentedly knowing that His grace and His justice are both satisfied. Yes, God is love (which phrase tells us as much about the character of Christian life as it does about God’s character). But, “Our God is consuming fire” (Heb. 12:29) is every bit as true. And, that verse from Hebrews is reiterating a point that Moses made, “For the LORD thy God is a consuming fire, even a jealous God.” (Deut. 4:24) Both love and destructive wrath are equally part of God’s revelation of Himself, and they both flow from His holiness.
The errant notion that God is love to the exclusion of His other attributes, or that love is His primary attribute leads to all sorts of twisted theology and confusing conclusions. It is a classic example of pulling one phrase out of one verse and forming a theology around it without considering the great bulk of Scripture. Read A.W. Pink’s “The Attributes of God” for a fuller discourse on this very matter.
Q – I don’t very often hear anyone in the church preaching that God always punishes sin. Instead of seeing that our sin was put upon Christ at Calvary and He was punished in our stead, I think that some teach and believe that in saving people, God pardons sin and lets it go without ever punishing it.
Jim – My old mentor used to say, “Our salvation is free — but, it’s not free for nothing.” In other words, it’s free to us, but only because someone else paid our price. And, you’re right, God does not simply “wink” at sin like a doddering grandfather who looks the other way when His offspring act up. He always punishes sin. The wages of sin continue to be death. That has not changed. Either we will die for our sins, or Christ’s death will be sufficient payment for our sins. Either way, somebody must die.
But, the problem with the church at large is deeper than what you have stated here. Most churches will not teach the depth of human depravity because they are mired in feel-good “pop” psychology in order to fill the pews. And, if you think you are ‘pretty okay,’ you don’t really need a whole lot of forgiveness. Even Jesus said, “They that be whole need not a physician, but they that are sick.” (Mat. 9:12)
But, a real sinner – a true, honest-to-God, died-in-the-wool, “chiefest” of sinners – knows how desperate his estate is and how badly He needs help. He desperately wants to be found in the substitute so that he will be “accepted in the beloved.”
It amazing me that people are willing to cheapen the eternally high price that Christ paid.
Q – If this is true [that God pardons sin and lets it go without punishment], why crucify Christ? Or why believe on Him at all for salvation? Doesn’t it make sense to say that salvation is a pardon for your sins paid for in the blood of Christ? Isn’t that what ‘redeem’ means – to buy back?
Jim – You are wiser than most preachers I know. You have grasped one of the most important facets of proper theology. If God were able to simply ignore, or lightly forgive sin, then there would be no reason for a substitutionary sacrifice. But, all through the Old Testament we read of sin offerings, an endless line of animals and an endless stream of blood, because sin requires death. Still, as the
Hebrews’ author argued time and again, all the blood was worthless when it came to actual redemption. It was simply a sign to the Israelites that they were sinners, requiring continual death and bloody sacrifice.
Then, when Christ died, our sins were placed on Him, and He paid a price sufficient to redeem us from the slavery of our sinful selves. The price of God’s own blood was paid and that price, once paid, ended the bloody stream of animal blood. A final, sufficient price had been paid.
But, at the same time, Christ suffered under the wrath of God to take the penalty we deserved for our sinful estate. Isaiah said that He was punished as no man had ever been and that His physical countenance was changed during the three hours of darkness as God poured on Him all the sin and all the punishment. He was tortured until He cried out, “My God, my God, what have you forsaken me?” That’s way, way deep.
Now, as you so astutely pointed out, why would God have personally punished His Son to such an extreme unless He had some actual, positive result in mind? The fact of the matter is, our sin is so extreme that only a very extreme redemption – God punishing God, God propitiating His own anger in the sacrifice of Himself – could save us.
But, people have played down the extremities in favor of feel-good-ism. As a result, they have no real sense of what worship is. They do not know how far down their Savior reached, so they have no sense of what they owe.
And, they do not honor they very One who paid the extreme penalty when they advance the notion that they can be good enough to please Him. They do harm to the cause of Christ when they lessen the value of His atonement, or take lightly the agony of His death, or the necessity of His punishment. They have cleaned up the “messy” parts of the Bible on behalf of popular consumption, but they have replaced the depth and mystery of the cross with their tradition – which traditions, said Christ, “Make the word of God of none effect.” (Mark 7:13)
There is indeed a famine in the land.
Q – So something suddenly came clear for me today. All sin is punished because of God’s justice and holiness. Either you were in Christ when He bore the penalty for your sins or you were not. If you were in Him, your sin is covered and paid for. If you weren’t in Him, you get eternal punishment.
Jim – Amen, sister! Preach it!
Q – The basic idea behind election, then, is never unfair. God is just as ‘just’ in judging an unbeliever for his own sin as He is in judging His Son for ours. Either way, God’s sense of justice is satisfied. To me that is perfectly fair. But it’s a matter of perspective and being able to see that fairness is defined in terms of what God does and who God is, not in terms of what we think is fair or not fair.
Jim – “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,saith the LORD. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts.” (Is. 55:8-9)
We only know as much about God as He has graciously revealed of Himself. We do not begin to grasp the outer edges of what and who God is. That is why people who define Him in human terms end up with a God who is too small. They have God in a box and they yank Him out at convenient times, when it suits their schedule, their needs, or their theology.
But righteousness, fairness, holiness, justice (and even love!) are defined by what God does and who God is. He is the standard and all things will be judged against that standard. You are either accepted before the thrice-holy standard on the basis of Christ’s finished work and perfect atonement, or you will stand in your own blood, covered in your own sin, and be judged against the eternal standard of God’s singular perfection.
By the way, as far as this question of fairness – people foolishly argue that God saving some and passing by others is “unfair.” But, they miss the whole point. Fairness would have demanded that absolutely everybody be judged and sent into eternal damnation. You don’t want fairness! You want mercy! You want grace! You want God to exercise His right to UN-fairness and save some of the undeserving wretches.
The most unfair thing that has ever occurred is God taking your putrid, hateful, arrogant sin and placing it on His utterly innocent Son. Then, just to make it really unfair, He punished His Son in your place. That’s incredibly unfair!
But, grace is dependent on that very unfair exchange of guilt and righteousness. Adam’s sin was imputed to all mankind. That’s not fair, but it’s how it is. Then, some of Adam’s race had their sins placed on Christ, who bore their grief. That’s not fair, but thankfully that’s how it is. Then, those same redeemed people have Christ’s own righteousness placed on them – imputed to their account, as it were. That’s the most unfair thing you’ve ever heard. But – glory to God – it’s true.
Q – I remember what a hard time I had with this and I know that I only know of God’s grace by His grace. Is this axiomatic, too obvious, or some simple thing I’ve missed all along?
Jim – It is axiomatic inasmuch as it proves itself. Truth is truth regardless of who accepts it or who bows to it. But, it is certainly not “obvious,” as is attested to by the great weight of modern Christianity who miss it, refuse it, or deny it.
So, I would say it’s just something you missed up until this moment. But, that’s exactly the way the revelation of God works. First He builds the fundamentals and then He reveals more and more of Himself. And, it all redounds to His glory, His worship, and His Sovereign hand.
“Whom shall he teach knowledge? and whom shall he make to understand doctrine? them that are weaned from the milk, and drawn from the breasts. For precept must be upon precept, precept upon precept; line upon line, line upon line; here a little and there a little.” (Is. 28:9-10)
These are deep mysteries that you are delving into. This the eternal counsel of God you are examining. This is the gate between Heaven and Hell. This is where the souls of men lay in the balance. And, you are treating it with great wisdom and insight. You are being cautious and reverent. In short, you’re in a good place. Keep going. Your Father is guiding you by His glorious hand. You are blessed with insight. Keep going.
“If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, that giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not; and it shall be given him.” (James 1:5)
Q – Can you expound on it, since we are talking about Christian apologetics? :o)
Jim – Just did. Hope it helped. Actually, you did the hard work, I just tacked my thoughts onto your already clear and well-presented thoughts. But, I’m not above hanging onto the coattails of bright people. 🙂
Q – Christ died, we live.
Jim – That made me smile very broadly. My favorite four words. Christ died, we live.