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. (Exodus 34:6-7)
The Scriptures reveal to us a God who is both, at one and the same time, merciful and wrathful. He is both “abounding in steadfast love” and yet who is so just that He will “by no means clear the guilty.” How such seemingly divergent streams can coexist in one God is explored within the story of redemption across the canon. Both truths are vitally important for us as Christians to grasp.
Christians have often struggled with holding these two realities of the divine nature in tension. We have tended towards one or the other extreme. So, some Christians emphasize the justice and righteousness of God to the exclusion of his mercy and love. They speak far more of God’s judgment and wrath than His mercy and grace. One legalist I knew many years ago actually said to his pastor that grace was a heresy. Such examples are extreme, but more mild versions of this notion appear in all sorts of hyper-fundamentalist churches, and in the hearts of many angry Christians. On the other end of the spectrum, there are also Christians who so love the grace of God that they find any notions of judgment or wrath to be out of step with God’s character. They will judge no one, condemn no one, rebuke no one, because they see such activities as un-Christian. God is love, they repeatedly point out. So, each point of view emphasizes one Biblical truth to the exclusion of the other.
Yet, the Scriptures point to both God’s mercy and judgment as realities we must accept. Jim Hamilton helpfully explains how they balance our understanding of God. He writes:
The reality of judgment should keep us from thinking of God in purely sentimental terms as though he were a grandfatherly buddy, who just lets things go. The reality of salvation should likewise keep us from thinking of God as merely a terrifying, vengeful judge. Those who flee to him will be saved, but those who do not fear him will be judged. Paradoxically, it is the reality of his terrifying judgment that is meant to send us fleeing to him. This matches the “eternal gospel” proclaimed by the angels in Revelation 14:6-7: “Fear God and give him glory, because the house of his judgment has come, and worship the one who made the heaven and the earth and sea and springs of water.” (God’s Glory in Salvation Through Judgment, 57)
The judgment of God calls us and invites us not to run from Him, but to take shelter under His wings of mercy. Salvation comes through judgment, and in many places in the Scriptures there is often mercy in His judgment. We need both doctrines. We lose much without the balancing character of both. We lose not only much about the character of God, but we lose the heart of the gospel.
The gospel itself embodies this truth of salvation through judgment. At the cross it is not merely that Jesus dies for sinners, that He demonstrates the love of God for us. These are truths, but the heart of the gospel goes even deeper. At the cross Jesus takes upon Himself the wrath of God in our place (Rom. 3:25; 1 John 2:2). That is to say, Jesus is judged for us. He endures the judgment of God, and through this judgment we find salvation. Salvation comes through judgment. That is the heart of the gospel, and so we must hold these two truths in tension as we read and study the Scriptures.
In this series we will be looking at a number of examples to help illustrate this point. We will explore what C.H. Dodd called the “two-beat rhythm” of the Bible. “The Word of God enters history,” he wrote, “both as judgment and as power of renewal” (The Bible To-day, 120). We will explore the interrelationship of these two themes across both the Old and New Testaments in the weeks to come. I hope it will encourage your fear and faith.