How do we hold these two pictures of God in balance? And do we have to? Can we just focus on the ‘nice’ God? We already know the answer, I think. Intellectually, we know that they are the same God. But do we feel it in our heart? Do we appreciate, amongst the mess of ordinary life, why we need both sides, and how one without the other is so dangerous?
People sometimes think that the God of the Old Testament is different to the God of the New Testament. Similarly, some Christians may think, since there is only one God, that he was angry and vengeful in the Old Testament but loving and compassionate in the New.
For all of us, though, how we are shown God in the Old Testament is difficult to reconcile with his actions in the New. In the Old Testament, God says things like:
Because you did not serve the Lord your God with joyfulness and gladness of heart, because of the abundance of all things, therefore you shall serve your enemies whom the Lord will send against you, in hunger and thirst, in nakedness, and lacking everything. And he will put a yoke of iron on your neck until he has destroyed you. (Deut 28:47-48)
But in the New Testament, we hear: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16). These verses are the ones we usually see on inspirational memes and bookmarks—and not without cause. But how do we hold these two pictures of God in balance? And do we have to? Can we just focus on the ‘nice’ God?
We already know the answer, I think. Intellectually, we know that they are the same God. But do we feel it in our heart? Do we appreciate, amongst the mess of ordinary life, why we need both sides, and how one without the other is so dangerous?
What is wrong with only having a God of love? We hear a lot about love these days. God is love. Love is love. Love is good, right? The trouble is, if God is only love, then Jesus died for… what? Why did Jesus have to die if God is love?
Let’s follow that thread. It is God’s justice and righteous anger at sin that requires a penalty to be paid. If God is love, there is no need for someone to pay the penalty of death for sin. But already there is a problem. Is love that excuses evil really love? Will a loving God tell people of terrible wickedness that their actions are exempt from judgement? That would not be loving to others.
Now, we are all sinners, and it is because of his love that we can be forgiven our evil and wickedness—but it is not by exemption. It was always via Jesus’ death. Right from the beginning, the penalty for sin was death. When God warned Adam away from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, he told him the penalty was death (Gen 2:17).
In Leviticus, we see God’s gracious provision of a sacrificial system that allowed the Israelites to substitute animals to be the carriers of their sin. The animals would be sacrificed for the sins of the Israelites—again, death. One of our clearest pictures relates to the annual Day of Atonement in Leviticus 16:7-10. Two goats are chosen: one of the goats is sacrificed as a sin offering; the other (the scapegoat) is sent into the wilderness to make atonement.