In Part 1 of this blog, we considered the seeming duplicity of divine character as presented in the Old and New Testament. In asking why God appears so harsh in the Old Testament and kind in the New, we saw that such a perspective relies heavily upon a dismissal of a large degree of biblical revelation. By focusing on one attribute, we tend to neglect another and thus lose sight of the glory of God’s fullness.
Now, let us consider how the Scriptures themselves reveal the complexity of God’s character and contemplate how we are to make sense of and appreciate the paradoxical prism of divine attributes.
Intricacy of God’s Character in the Scriptures
As discussed previously, “either/or” categories are often unhelpful in theological conversations. This is especially true in regards to God’s character: God is love, God is jealous, God is holy. Amazingly, these attributes are not in competition with each other, but are all perfectly symmetrical.
God has revealed Himself as both gracious and just, forgiver and punisher.
Consider Exodus 34:6-7:
The LORD passed before him and proclaimed, “The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.”
When God reveals Himself, there is an enigmatic expression of both grace and justice. He will forgive iniquity and transgression and sin, but not clear the guilty. How can God forgive guilt yet punish the guilty?
Rather than claim contradiction, we are called to consider how God Himself answers the question.
But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it— the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus. Romans 3:21–26
Modern perspectives picture the Old Testament portrait of God as harsh, capricious and cruel. However, the attributes which Paul highlights from the text of the Old Testament are not anger and hatred but love, grace and mercy.
How can a holy God merely pass over sin as He did when He “put away” (or “passed over”) David’s adultery, murder and deceit (2 Sam. 12:13)? What of God’s righteousness? Is justice compromised or nullified by grace?
The answer is spectacular and brilliant. God’s former grace may have called into question His justice, but that inherent justice was magnified and clarified in the death of Christ.
Christ Crucified as the Key
For Paul the life, death and resurrection of Christ stand as the ultimate resolution to the paradoxical diversity of God’s self-revelation. The sacrifice of the Son is the decisive disclosure of how God can forgive sin and judge sinners. God’s justice demands that the guilty pay, and Christ has absorbed an infinite debt. Therefore, forgiveness freely flows from the cross to cover past, present and future transgressions and transgressors.
In the death of Christ, we see most fully the depths of divine mercy and justice, love and anger, grace and punishment. In the death of Christ, we find unfathomable displays of divine fury and wrath clearer than anything seen in the Old Testament. At the same time, in the death of Christ, we discover deeper manifestations of divine love and grace than we could possibly imagine.
God is absolutely perfect in all of His attributes. He is not ashamed by the violence of His fierce wrath toward His enemies anymore than He is embarrassed by the depth of His great grace toward His beloved.
Failure to see the consistency of God’s character throughout the testaments reflects a selective reading of Scripture. Failure to savor the beauty in this complexity reflects how naturally we suppress the truth and prefer our own conceptions of God.
God loves. God punishes. God forgives. God judges. God is good.