The Loving God of Wrath and Covenant

God’s wrath is of love. This is not something we normally think about, to be sure, but according to the Scriptures God’s wrath is in fact a function of His love, something He exhibits out of love. This is something which struck me a couple weeks ago when I read this text for a Sunday school lesson:

Then the Israelites did what was evil in the sight of the LORD and worshiped the Baals; and they abandoned the LORD, the God of their ancestors, who had brought them out of the land of Egypt; they followed other gods, from among the gods of the peoples who were all around them, and bowed down to them; and they provoked the LORD to anger. They abandoned the LORD, and worshiped Baal and the Astartes. So the anger of the LORD was kindled against Israel, and he gave them over to plunderers who plundered them, and he sold them into the power of their enemies all around, so that they could no longer withstand their enemies. Whenever they marched out, the hand of the LORD was against them to bring misfortune, as the LORD had warned them and sworn to them; and they were in great distress. Then the LORD raised up judges, who delivered them out of the power of those who plundered them.

Judges 2:11-16

The story here is this: Israel was delivered by the free grace of God from Egypt and given the Torah as covenant charter, a document establishing the covenant relationship between God and Israel. The Torah stipulated certain curses if Israel failed to obey, most importantly including devastation at the hands of foreign nations. They obeyed (mostly-ish) for a time under the strong leadership of Moses and then Joshua. But finally Joshua died, and idolatry flooded the nation in very little time. So God was under obligation by the terms of the covenant He entered to punish Israel for their unfaithfulness.

Thus we arrive at this text. In response to Israel’s breaking of the covenant, God responded with the curses of the covenant. They worshipped Baals and Astartes, breaking the first two commandments. So God let their enemies plunder the land, gave them failure in their military endeavors, and put them under wicked, oppressive rulers. When we simply skim some verses about this kind of judgment, we are likely to miss just how strong it is. Imagine for a moment the scene of raiders charging through a peaceful village, killing and burning and stealing. Moms search for their children in rubble, families are suddenly decimated, and hard-working people find their homes and livelihoods reduced to rubble. We speak here of horrendous suffering.

Does the word “love” come to mind in this picture? Do you see love here? Yet Scripture tells us that it is indeed present here. It’s in fact God’s original motivation. For these penalties were imposed by the Torah, which itself was a gift of love by which God made up His covenant with Israel. God chose Israel and made a covenant with them out of love, and yet He included these curses in His covenant. The curses are part of, as it were, the marriage contract between God and Israel.

This covenantal form of love is the context for God’s wrath. His wrath operates for the covenant partner. By sending afflictions on Israel for their unfaithfulness, God calls them to return to Him and find the life which He has to offer. If there is no life except from God, then for Israel to pursue anyone or anything else is to run from life. Therefore it is by love that God is angered by Israel’s unfaithfulness and idolatry. As one analogy, nothing will make you more angry with your child than seeing them engage consistently and unrepentantly in self-destructive behavior. Israel degraded herself by idol worship, which aroused the fury of her Husband who loved her and sought her best.

Yet unlike some of us, unlike the frustrated parents or jealous husbands we know, God’s wrath is never uncontrolled or unpredictable. God will never be overwhelmed with passion or so frustrated that He loses control. He does not fly off the handle. Instead, His anger is specifically limited and controlled. He set the terms of His wrath in the Torah, giving detailed rules and guidelines for how He would respond to Israel’s sins. In God’s covenant of love, He limits and directs His fury. And His fury comes from no place but His covenant of love.

Therefore God is love. And even His wrath serves that love, and is specially controlled and limited for our sake. The idea of a wrathful God ought not scare us or make us uncomfortable at all unless we are also uncomfortable with a loving God. “For the Lord disciplines those he loves, and he punishes each one he accepts as his child” (Heb. 15:6).

The Loving God of Wrath and Covenant

Jesus, Love Mascot? (Or, the Wrath of the Lamb Does Exist)

Every culture in history has had its own problems with the Bible and Christian teaching. Ours struggles especially with the violent judgments of the Old Testament, including broad application of the death penalty and Israel’s conquests of Canaan (a topic I’ve written on recently). Unfortunately, for an increasing number of Christians these days, the solution to these tough texts is to discard them. How is this justified? Here’s the argument (which, for reasons which I will make clear by the end of the post, I am labeling the love-mascot argument):

Jesus Christ is the full and final revelation of God.

Jesus showed in His life that He would never kill, harm, or otherwise violently judge anyone.

Therefore any portrayal of God as doing such things in the Old Testament is at best revelation made imperfect by humans.

The love-mascot argument starts from a true premise, but the second point is, well, simply not Biblical. Jesus may not have harmed or killed anyone in His earthly ministry, but that’s certainly not because He was opposed to such judgments. Consider these words of our Lord:

Don’t fear those who kill the body but are not able to kill the soul; rather, fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.

Matthew 10:28

The Son of Man will send out His angels, and they will gather from His kingdom everything that causes sin and those guilty of lawlessness. They will throw them into the blazing furnace where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

Matthew 13:41-42

But if that wicked slave says in his heart, “My master is delayed,” and starts to beat his fellow slaves, and eats and drinks with drunkards, that slave’s master will come on a day he does not expect and at an hour he does not know. He will cut him to pieces and assign him a place with the hypocrites. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

Matthew 24:48-51

But I will show you the One to fear: Fear Him who has authority to throw people into hell after death. Yes, I say to you, this is the One to fear!

Luke 12:5

So Jesus preaches that God will very harshly judge unbelievers, even condemning them to a Hell of eternal suffering. He even uses the analogy of cutting someone to pieces. And this is the God Jesus Himself worshiped, served, prayed to, and loved. Jesus Himself believed that these acts are right and just. Also note that in the second text, Jesus—not the Father—is the one who commands this tough judgment.

Of course, none of this even counts Revelation. The book of Revelation tells of many plagues and harsh, violent destruction. This is not just the wrath of some pagan deity. This is “the wrath of the Lamb” (Rev. 6:16) who was slaughtered (Rev. 5:6). The same Jesus who said “Neither do I condemn you” also “judges and makes war with righteousness” (Rev. 19:11) at the conclusion of the age.

With these terrifying pictures of the wrath of Jesus Christ, we can’t apply the love-mascot logic. It breaks down if Jesus is allowed to judge violently, which He clearly is willing to do. If Jesus is like this, we cannot simply scratch out the OT revelation of God’s painful dealings with people, because they are indeed in line with the eternal Word (John 1:1).

So on to the word “mascot.” Why do I call this argument the love-mascot argument? Because of the way progressive Christianity (a movement which generally encompasses people who use this argument) handles Jesus. Progressive Christianity, albeit with decent intentions, refuses to let Jesus be who He is. Instead, they start with a modern, Western conception of love as something which cannot involve harshness or violent judgment. Then they take the Biblical statement “God is love,” load it with such a niceness-shaped love, and apply it to Jesus in the Gospels. This culturally conditioned Jesus is then used to cut up the OT. But in all this Jesus serves the role as only a mascot of love, and “love” strictly in a very uniquely American sense.

There is more evidence for this throughout the writings of progressive Christians (I do not wish to name any in particular right now, but if you are familiar with them at all this might make sense anyway). If you read much of their stuff, you will find that they treat Christianity as simply one religion out of many. All the religions are spoken of on equal terms, with Christianity seeming to just the preference of the authors. What people do in and for Christ is often equated with what people do in the name of Mohammed or Buddha. A Christian life is given no priority or advantage over a devout Hindu life. Only some of them would be willing to say that Christianity and other religions are basically equal, but they mostly all speak that way.

This does not merely degrade a system of belief. This pulls down Jesus Christ. He is not treated as the only way to the Father, the only name by which we may be saved, or the One Mediator who is Himself God and Man. Instead, when Christianity is spoken of as though it were merely one way among many to lead a life of “love,” Jesus Himself becomes little more than a mascot of love. Instead of being our life, salvation, sanctification, and only hope, He is mostly our example, and good name to cling to in the pursuit of a loving life. Indeed, the more radical end of progressivism, which barely even deserves to be included, would even be willing to say that Christianity is nothing more than living a life of love and compassion. In this, the Son of God becomes a mere mascot.

So what do we do and say? We refuse to let modern, Western ideals of what love should be like be the last word. Instead, if Jesus is God, and God is love, we should let the actual Jesus dictate what we understand of love. The actual Jesus as we see Him through Scripture is not a mascot, but instead lives simultaneously as our Redemption and our Judgment. He is filled both with love for all people and wrath for all people. This is the kind of love which confronts us unapologetically in Jesus, and this Jesus is the means by which we have to interpret the Old Testament. Of course, in that case we should be able to accept the harsh realities of God’s judgments there, because even the Exodus plagues pale in comparison to the end of the age at which the wrath of the Lamb will be unleashed on the world. The Lamb who was slaughtered does love unto death, but those who do not join in His death will find their own much worse. This Jesus is no mere mascot of culturally restricted ideas of love. He is the one and only I AM, the uniquely exclusive path to the Father, who was and is and will be.

With this in mind, let us pray that our hearts and minds will be conformed to the image of Jesus. Let us ask the Father through His Spirit to mold our ideas of love and justice to those He Himself performs in His Son. For who has known the mind of the Lord to be His counselor? But we have the mind of Christ. Amen! Come, Lord Jesus!

Jesus, Love Mascot? (Or, the Wrath of the Lamb Does Exist)

Election, Israel, and Yahweh’s Consuming Fire

The Cure That Killed the Patient

The Old Testament can be a very scary place. You can’t disagree if you’ve read much of it at all, unless of course you like massive body counts and total destruction. From the frequent application of the death penalty to the bloody conquests of Israel over the Canaanite peoples, there is a lot to unsettle the stomach. I know from experience the strain this violence can create on attempting to have relationship with the God revealed in Jesus Christ during the New Testament.

What I find more disturbing, though, is how many people in popular theology these days are trying to handle this tension. Writers like Peter Enns and others have promoted dealing with these tough texts by more or less excising them from our theology. Because Jesus is the true Word of God and is so non-violent in the Gospels, they argue, the portraits of divine violence in the Old Testament must be distorted by bad Jewish theology. “God lets His children tell the story,” so they say.

As I explained in a recent post, this is a very problematic approach to the Old Testament. The God of the New Testament, the God who dwells fully in Jesus Christ, identifies Himself with Yahweh, the God of the Old Testament. Enns and Co. would agree with this. But what they miss is that Yahweh’s defining moment in the Old Testament is made precisely of the kind of very violence they say God must not have done based on Jesus. What is this defining moment? The Exodus. Over and over again in the Old Testament, God identifies Himself as the God who brought His people out of Egypt1. And there is no separating God’s saving Israel in the Exodus from the violent miracles involved2. So if the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ has any continuity at all with the God who led Israel out of Egypt, we cannot ignore Old Testament violence. And if He is not the same God, then we’re left in Marcion’s heresy with a completely unintelligible Christ and a foundationally misled New Testament.

Another Way? Maybe Holy Love

Of course, I’ve said as much as this before. What I’d like to address in this post is an actual alternative. Usually after dismissing the tea-strainer approach to the Old Testament, I and others who stand firm on this issue don’t have much of a positive response. If discounting the stories of OT violence as Israelite distortions is the wrong way to understand them, then what is the right way? Should we just swallow the whole without trying to comprehend what our God of love was doing then?

Obviously, apathy isn’t the way of faith, either. We need to try and apply what we know of God in Jesus Christ to what happened in the Old Testament, but we must do so with recognition that the “wrath of the Lamb”3 actually does exist. So how can we do this? I intend in this post to provide something of a way forward, with help from, again, T. F. Torrance, this time drawing mostly from his shorter book The Mediation of Christ.

What do we know of God’s love? We know that this love characterizes God in a deep way4, was revealed in the cross5, and is no more or less applicable to God than His holiness6. So what do these truths tell us? A couple of thoughts come to mind. First off, if holiness is as essential to God as Scripture indicates (and anything repeated three times like in Rev. 4:8 must be), and yet John can say, “God is love,” then these two “attributes” of God must be intimately related and connected, perhaps only two forms of one reality (especially if God is simple). God is not just holy and not just love, but is “holy love.”

What does holy love look like? For an understanding of holy love to “work”, that is, to do justice to what God has revealed of Himself in our history, the definition must be able to handle both Joshua and 1 John, the “Stone the blasphemers” and the “Neither do I condemn you.” So my attempted construction of this concept is as follows: Holy love is love so powerful and incomparable that it stands above all lesser loves, endlessly opposing them for not being loving enough. A holy love cannot compromise with hatred or self-love, but instead burns against them like a fire. Holy love is a freely devoted living for the beloved, which is so for the beloved that the lover must contradict anything which threatens the beloved, whether other people or the beloved herself. So to the beloved in herself, holy love appears like this: “You reveal the path of life to me; in Your presence is abundant joy; in Your right hand are eternal pleasures”7. But to whoever threatens the beloved, holy love appears as a “consuming fire”8.

With this understanding of holy love in mind, the second part of this post will attempt to examine the specific Old Testament problems. At this point, I’ve nearly hit 1000 words, which is the max attention span of the average blog reader. So even if you could read more, I think I’d prefer to split this post because I have quite a bit more. I’ve only laid the groundwork for the rest of what I have to say. I guess try to think about what I’ve said so far until part two comes ’round.

Election, Israel, and Yahweh’s Consuming Fire

Grace > Wrath, Or “Mercy Triumphs Over Judgment”

Mercy triumphs over judgment.

James 2:13b

See that verse? It says something quite beautiful. Mercy triumphs over judgment. And is this not just what we need? If judgment triumphed over mercy, we would all be doomed, for instead of Christ on the Cross for us we would ourselves all suffer God’s wrath.

Yet there is a thought out there, and a someone popular one among conservative evangelicals like myself, that God’s mercy and His judgment are equals, that His wrath defines Him as much as His love. And the reason for this emphasis is certainly understandable. Theological liberalism and progressivism both act as though God’s “No” were non-existent or at least negligible in the grand scheme, so proper theology ought to resist such a temptation. But we must not respond with error in the other direction, unbiblically making grace and condemnation equal in God. For this is not what He has revealed to us in the Scriptures and in the life of His Son.

Some of you will be suspicious on this point, so I will seek to demonstrate it will a few Biblical proofs. Let it be known that God defines Himself more with love than wrath, and deals more fully in grace than in judgment. The first proof I put forward is the Old Testament judgment texts. Time after time in the OT, especially in the prophets, God warns of frightening and severe judgment. But what follows? Nearly never is that the last word. Almost every single terrifying warning is followed up by the promise of future grace. A small sample includes the entire book of Amos and its conclusion in 9:11-15, the curses of the Law in Deut. 29 and their conclusion in 30:1-10, the book of Joel and its conclusion in 3:16-21, and large portions of Isaiah. The theme repeats, woven throughout all God’s dealings with Israel: you have sinned, you will be severely and brutally punished, but you will always be restored.

Another proof comes from God’s own nature. We know that love is necessary to who and what God is, for John tells us, “God is love” (1 Jn. 4:8, 16). Yet we are not told likewise that “God is wrath” or “God is judgment.” For how could this be? While God has always eternally loved and been loved in His inner Triune life, as the Father loves the Son and the Son loves the Father, God’s wrath only exists as a response to sin. Wrath and judgment are not eternal characteristics of God’s life, but historical realities created in response to earthly sin. To speak a bit more technically, God’s love is necessary (i.e. He would not be God without it), but His wrath is contingent (i.e. it only exists in response to something else). God has always loved and will always love, but judgment came only after sin came and will end after sin ends.

Finally, I point to the order of God’s interactions with us humans. Which does God want for all people, grace or judgment? I’ll give you a hint: check 2 Peter 3:9. What does He take no pleasure in? The death of the wicked (Ezek. 18:23), which brings them to judgment. And which of His activities, mercy or punishment, does He require that each of us emulate every day? Jesus’ own words seem clear on that matter. Above all of this, which side does He use to fulfill the other in the life of His beloved Son? Did He have mercy on His Son to make sure we were all condemned, or did He send His Son into death and wrath so that we could all be saved? The Cross here makes the answer obvious.

Hopefully, then, it is clear. God has a preference to love, grace, and mercy over wrath, judgment, and condemnation. They are not equal aspects of how our Father in heaven relates to the people He has made. Grace beats condemnation, love overwhelms wrath, and mercy triumphs over judgment. This is what God has told us out of His abundant kindness towards us. So let us celebrate what the Father does for us through His Son, that we should experience such love!

The Lord says to his people,

“Your wounds are incurable,
your injuries cannot be healed.
There is no one to take care of you,
no remedy for your sores,
no hope of healing for you.
All your lovers have forgotten you;
they no longer care about you.
I have attacked you like an enemy;
your punishment has been harsh
because your sins are many
and your wickedness is great.
Complain no more about your injuries;
there is no cure for you.
I punished you like this
because your sins are many
and your wickedness is great.
But now, all who devour you will be devoured,
and all your enemies will be taken away as prisoners.
All who oppress you will be oppressed,
and all who plunder you will be plundered.
I will make you well again;
I will heal your wounds,
though your enemies say,
‘Zion is an outcast;
no one cares about her.’
I, the Lord, have spoken.”

The Lord says,

“I will restore my people to their land
and have mercy on every family;
Jerusalem will be rebuilt,
and its palace restored.
The people who live there will sing praise;
they will shout for joy.
By my blessing they will increase in numbers;
my blessing will bring them honor.
I will restore the nation’s ancient power
and establish it firmly again;
I will punish all who oppress them.
Their ruler will come from their own nation,
their prince from their own people.
He will approach me when I invite him,
for who would dare come uninvited?
They will be my people,
and I will be their God.
I, the Lord, have spoken.”

Jeremiah 30:12-22

Grace > Wrath, Or “Mercy Triumphs Over Judgment”

When God Doesn’t Seem Good: Living with Tough Texts in the Bible

God isn’t always easy to trust. I don’t just mean in the daily lives of living out of faith. I mean even based on what we know of Him, it can be tough to trust Him to be good. Prime example:

This is what the LORD of Hosts says: ‘I witnessed what the Amalekites did to the Israelites when they opposed them along the way as they were coming out of Egypt. Now go and attack the Amalekites and completely destroy everything they have. Do not spare them. Kill men and women, children and infants, oxen and sheep, camels and donkeys.’ “

1 Samuel 15:2-3

Think about that for a moment. Here God, our God revealed in Jesus Christ, says to kill all of the Amalekites without mercy. Even the children and infants. This is not, either, the only time in the Bible that God gives such commands to Israel. There are many tough texts in the Bible, especially in the early Old Testament.. What do we make of that when Jesus said, “Let the little children come to Me,” and John said, “God is love?” Can these things possibly even mesh at all?

According to a growing number of people, the answer is an obvious “no.” Popular thinkers and writers like Peter Enns and Rachel Held Evans are willing to relegate these instructions to the projections of the Israelites onto their God. The character of Yahweh in the Old Testament, as many will now tell you, is a picture of God distorted by the cultural sins and prejudices of ancient Israel.

On one hand, this sounds good. It would be nice to say, as Enns does, that “God lets His children tell the story,” and leave all the uncomfortable bits in the trash bin of Israel’s sin. But is this really viable? Is this a truly Christian way of reading Scripture? I don’t think so. We have to be willing, as far as I can tell, to let God tell His story through His method, namely the Bible, gore and all.

How can we understand these difficult texts, then? How do we reconcile in our minds the God who died for all the Amalekite children and the God who had them executed? Some people don’t try and just live in denial of the tension. Some people divide God’s will into two, with God’s house divided against itself as He pursues both His love for people and His love for His glory. But a truly Christian way of handling these difficult parts of the Bible requires Christ, namely seeing all of Scripture through the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ. Jesus Himself said that all Scriptures point to Him, and that He fulfills their meaning and purpose.

How does this relate to these hard verses? According to people like Enns, the love of the Cross undermines them. If Jesus is love to such an extent, then Yahweh the Warrior must not be pure revelation but human corruption. Yet this seems dangerous to me, mainly because I believe Jesus and the Apostles treated the entire Old Testament revelation of God as an infallible authority and assumed that portrait in their theology. This even includes His holy wars.

If that “solution” doesn’t work, what does? How do we reconcile these two different views of God? Well, I still point us to the Cross, but in a different way. Instead of undermining the Old Testament violence, I believe the Cross gives us reason to trust God in spite of such things. Yes, God seems to have ordered the wholesale extermination of the Amalekite people, but we should let the Cross teach us that God’s love is even at work here, not that it didn’t happen by God’s plan. Whatever judgment He was willing to inflict on the Amalekite people and children, He willingly suffered Himself for their salvation. If God can perform the ultimate act of love within the horror of His own Son’s unjust crucifixion, surely He can love in anything else.

Ultimately, this all calls for faith. Do you trust that God is good? I do, honestly. I don’t always understand Him, but I trust that He is good. Moreover, I trust that He is good in the revelation He gave us. I trust that He gave us a reliable picture of Himself, even in the tough texts in the Bible, and that this somehow flows with His all-consuming love. How can this be? I don’t have a clue, but like Mary I trust His promise and wait patiently to see what He will do. And even in that I do struggle with this. This is one of the questions that can keep me up at nights, forcing me to surf the web for smart believers with fresh insights. But even then, I wait patiently for God to answer, even if that will not happen before Jesus returns. I can trust Him in the wait, because Jesus proved His love. My prayer is that you can, too.

When God Doesn’t Seem Good: Living with Tough Texts in the Bible