When God’s Mercy Sounds Like Bad News (My 1st CT Column)

mercy like bad news.jpgI already announced this online last week, but I’ve accepted the invitation to be a columnist for the Christianity Today print edition for the next year. The column is entitled “Confessing God”–a title I’ve taken from the late John Webster. My hope is that each piece will do just that: confess the God of Scripture as a member of the Church for the sake of the Church and the watching world.

In any case, my first column entitled, “When God’s Mercy Sounds Like Bad News” has just been unlocked at Christianity Today. Here’s an excerpt:

Moses was well-acquainted with the patience of God. He pled for Israel when they betrayed the Lord with the Golden Calf. For years he dealt with the Israelites in the desert, their complaining and recalcitrance. They “vexed the Holy One of Israel” (Ps. 78:41), and still God bore it, restraining his wrath and refusing to cut them off (Isa. 48:9). God’s patience is a central, defining feature of his character.

But this wasn’t always a comfort to Moses. Rather than being left to deal with the grumbling and sin of his people, he asks God to kill him outright (Num. 11:15).

Moses isn’t alone in this frustration.Unnerved by the success of lawbreakers, thieves, and idolaters, the psalmist asks, “How long will the wicked be jubilant?” (Ps. 94:3). David cries a similar lament in the face of his enemies’ taunts (Ps. 13:1). Overwhelmed by opposition, he wonders whether God will defend him. In Scripture, God’s people are surprised and repelled by God’s patience as often as they are comforted by it.

You can read the rest here.

Soli Deo Gloria

Lord, Have Mercy (12 Theses on the Mercy of God)

mercyA Christian cannot dwell too much on the mercy of God. God is infinite and as such, so is his mercy. We cannot come to an end of it. God is good and his goodness towards sinners in our misery, weakness, and rebellion takes the form of mercy. Mercy that forgives. Mercy that blesses. Mercy that treats us gently. Mercy that covers all–yes, even that unspeakable shame you dare not mention to the closest friend. Mercy that gives new life to sinners who have thrown theirs away, pursuing it in a million different broken cisterns instead of drawing from the freely-proffered fountain of life. The good news of the gospel is that the Triune God has shown us mercy in Christ. It doesn’t get more basic than that.

And yet, all too often in the practical Christian life, we don’t give it more than a passing thought. This might strike some as strange of me to say. Many of us can think of any number of Christians who regularly appeal to the mercy of God to excuse, or justify their sinful wanderings or lack of seriousness in the Christian life. But you have to see that’s not the same thing as “dwelling”, or giving serious thought to the mercy of God. That’s a juvenile confusion of mercy with careless license. Anyone who has given thought to the mercy of God cannot treat it lightly.

Considering the mercy of God with prayer and in the Spirit leads to repentance and deep, faithful, love. That’s precisely why Paul begs the Romans to offer their bodies as living sacrifices as a reasonable act of worship, “in view of God’s mercy.” After eleven chapters of outlining God’s mercy through the God’s faithfulness to his creation, his promises to Israel, and the whole world–including sinners under judgment–Paul thinks it’s eminently reasonable to call his readers to holy, faithful living, with no thought that this should provoke license or apathy.

With that in mind, then, it seems helpful to outline some thoughts on the mercy of God. And by “outline”, I mean “quote Thomas Watson” who very helpfully laid out twelve theses on mercy in his Body of Practical Divinity. (And if you’re wondering, yes, I am on a Watson kick because WHERE THE HECK HAVE PEOPLE BEEN HIDING HIM THIS IS AMAZING STUFF!!!!).

His theses will come in italics, then I’ll offer commentary. But honestly, you should go read it here, because Watson is just a preaching beast. I mean, he’s got one-liners for days like, “The sun is not so full of light as God is full of mercy.” Really, he’s just so good.

Alright, so the twelve theses.

[1] It is the great design of the Scripture to represent God as merciful.  For Watson, the whole narrative points up God the merciful redeemer. When God gives Moses his name in Exodus and recounted later on, God heaps up the merciful adjectives (slow to anger, compassionate, forgiving, etc), but only one or two concerned with judgment (by no means clearing the guilty).

[2] God is more inclinable to mercy than wrath. Luther called wrath God’s “alien work.” It’s foreign to him. He only punishes when his hand his forced. His mercy, though? It’s offered before we even think to ask for it. Get that through your head: God’s mercy towards you was God’s idea.

[3] There is no condition, but we may spy mercy in it. Even in our darkest moments, the roughest situations of persecution and misery, we are able to see God’s mercy at work to save and bless his children.

[4] Mercy sweetens all God’s other attributes. Holiness or justice without mercy is a threat. That’s judgment waiting to happen. But with mercy? They are sweet comforts.

[5] God’s mercy is one of the most orient pearls of his crown; it makes his Godhead appear amiable and lovely. Watson points out that when Moses asks to see God’s glory, God says he’s going to make his goodness pass before him and “show you my mercy” (Exod 33:19). Mercy is God’s glory.

[6] Even the worst taste God’s mercy; such as fight against God’s mercy, taste of it; the wicked have some crumbs from mercy’s table. God makes his sun shine on the good and the bad, gives oxygen to both those who praise him, as well as those who curse his name. Everyone has experienced God’s mercy.

[7] Mercy coming to us in a covenant is sweetest. Common mercy is great, but the specific mercy we receive through the work of Christ is the sweetest. Sunshine is fine, but forgiveness, adoption, and justification, are beautiful works of mercy surpassing all of the rest.

[8] One act of mercy engages God to another.  Some might think that God’s mercy is a one-time thing. But, in fact, God’s mercy is more like a domino set. Election leads to justification leads to holiness leads to glorification. A parent keeps giving.

[9] All the mercy in the creature is derived from God, and is but a drop of this ocean. Every act of mercy you’ve ever encountered is actually provoked by the God who is the source of all mercy. It is God working mercy through human servants. And it’s just the tiniest glimpse of the reservoirs of mercy he has ready to pour out.

[10] As God’s mercy makes the saints happy, so it should make them humble. Saints don’t swagger, they rejoice. Acknowledging your need for mercy should be a humbling reality. Plus, you should be too busy praising God for his mercy than to be bragging about your own non-existent awesomeness compared to others.

[11] Mercy stays the speedy execution of God’s justice. That people aren’t currently being punished is not a sign of God’s weakness, nor the inevitability of judgment for unrepentant sin. It’s God’s kindness and a sign of his willingness that we should repent.

[12] It is dreadful to have mercy as a witness against anyone. His final thesis is one of warning. When you’ve made an enemy, even of mercy, then you’re hosed. Mercy is your only hope. Don’t fight it.

Watson continues on with the various uses this doctrine has for those who consider it length. It draws us into greater love of God, confidence of our salvation, and works of mercy towards others which demonstrate the glory of God’s mercy in our own lives. I would urge you today: consider the mercies of God, rest in them, and praise him.

Soli Deo Gloria

In What Ways Is God our God in the Covenant of Grace?

Opening his lengthy treatment of the covenant of grace in the Institutes, Francis Turretin notes that getting this right is of central importance to theology because it is “the center and bond of all religion, consisting in the communion of God with man and embracing in its compass all the benefits of God towards man and his duties towards God” (Top. 12, Qu. 1, par. I). That certainly doesn’t leave much out does it? But that’s not surprising, is it? Turretin is right. Looking at the biblical storyline, it’s a matter of covenants made, broken, renewed, enforced, and ultimately fulfilled in Christ.

Of course, the central covenant promise in the Scriptures is that “you will be my people, and I will be your God” (Jer, 30:22′ cf. Exod. 6:7; Lev. 26:12). God’s gift to us, in the covenant, is quite simply himself. We will be his and he will be ours. But that raises the question, “How is God our God in the covenant of grace?” not in the sense of, “How is this accomplished?”, but “What is the result?” What goes into God becoming our God? What are the “benefits” of God being our God, so to speak?

In the next section (Top. 12, Qu. 2), among other things, Turretin goes ahead and tries to outline four ways in which God becomes our God in the promise of the covenant. God becomes ours: (1) according to his nature & attributes and persons; (2) according to the communication of goods; (3) according to our conformity to God; and (4) according eternity of good things. The section is rather stunning (and lengthy). While I can barely scratch the surface, in what follows, I’ll try sketch what a blessings Turretin outlines in our possession of God according to these four categories. And when I do, we’ll hopefully begin to see how he can say that the covenant encompasses “all the benefits of God towards man.”

1. According to Nature and Persons. For all Turretin’s strengths as a theologian, he rarely waxes poetic, but this next section is beautiful, so I’ll end up quoting him at length a couple of times. Turretin notes that in reconciliation, we are brought into communion with God. We move from a relationship of opposition to love, we relate to God no longer as an angry judge to us but a Father. In the covenant, we are betrothed to him as a husband and brought under his protection as a King protects his people. Because of this, we receive him as our God according to his attributes. But what does that mean?

God so gives himself to us as to be ours as to all the attributes (conducing to our advantage and salvation). They are well said to be ours by fruition and use because their salutary effects flow unto us. Ours is the wisdom of God for direction; the power of God for protection; the mercy of God for the remission of sins; the grace of God for sanctification and consolation; the justice of God for the punishment of enemies; the faithfulness of God for the execution of promises; the sufficiency of God for the communication of all manner of happiness. And as sin brought innumerable evils upon us, we find a remedy for all in the divine properties: wisdom heals our ignorance and blindness, grace our guilt, power our weakness, mercy our misery, goodness our wickedness, justice our iniquity, the sufficiency and fulness of God our poverty and indigence, fidelity our inconstancy and fickleness, holiness our impurity and life our death.

Okay, so that’s the attributes. But what does it mean for God to be given to us “personally”, or according to the persons of the Trinity? Again, Turretin, at length:

God is ours personally, inasmuch as the individual persons are ours and give themselves to us for accomplishing the work of redemption: the Father electing, the Son redeeming, the Holy Spirit sanctifying. He becomes our Father by adoption when he receives us into his own family and regards, cherishes and loves us as sons (1 Jn. 3:1). The Son becomes ours by suretyship when he offers himself as the surety to make satisfaction for us and as the head, to rule over and quicken us. He becomes ours as a Prophet, revealing salvation by the light of his doctrine; our Priest, who purchases it by his merit; and our King, who applies it (when acquired) by the efficacy of the Spirit. The Holy Spirit becomes ours when he is sent to us and gives himself to us as sanctifier and consoler that he may dwell in us as his temples and enrich us with his blessings, light, strength, joy, liberty, holiness and happiness. Thus our communion is with the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit (1 Jn. 1:3; 2 Cor. 13:14). Hence, baptism, which is a seal of the covenant, is administered in their name so that we may be consecrated as sons of God, the Father, as members of the Son and as temples of the Holy Spirit and enjoy the blessings flowing from each person–the mercy of the Father, the grace of the Son and the power of the Holy Spirit.*

Already, it becomes apparent what Turretin means when he says that all of the benefits and blessings of God towards humanity are seen in the benefits of the covenant in communion with God. But wait, there’s more!

2. In the Communication of Goods. I won’t do the lengthy quote thing here. Still, Turretin moves on to point out that “He cannot be our God without all things belonging to him becoming ours.” As Paul tells us, all things are ours because we are Christ’s and Christ is God’s and so we have all things in him (1 Cor. 3:21-23). Piling up verse after verse, Turretin shows us how God’s creatures serve us, God’s angels protect us, God’s earth is our inheritance, and God’s promises (for this life and the next) are ours. Every spiritual blessing in the heavenlies is ours because God is our God through the covenant in Christ (Eph. 1:3).

3. In Conformity to God. It would be absurd, though, to believe that God could become ours without our own transformation. Turretin teaches us that God “is not satisfied with pouring upon us the salutary effects of his properties, but wishes further to impress upon us their mark and likeness (as far as a finite creature can bear it) that we may be ‘partakers of the divine nature’ (2 Pet. 1:4) and be like to it (which is the most perfect form of communion).” Here is the beginning of what we might loosely call Turretin’s doctrine of “theosis“, only with a very careful attention to the Creator/creature distinction. Turretin says here that just as the sun shining into a diamond irradiates it with its glory, so does God’s shining splendor fill his children and “makes us shine like many suns” (Matt. 13:43). True communion through the covenant requires conformity to his holy character, as well as happiness, immortality, and glory in body as well as as the soul, which means that our conformity will include our resurrection so that “we shall be like him; for we shall see him as he is” (1 Jn. 3:2).

4. For An Eternity of Good Things. Finally, Turretin tells us that none of these things could make us perfectly happy “unless perpetuity was added to them.” In other words, could you imagine being perfectly satisfied in having all of these things while knowing they that were only for a little while? Because God is unfailingly good, his promise to be our God extends into eternity. “So that as long as God will be God (and he will be so forever), he will also be our god that we may forever enjoy his communion and happiness”, as the Psalmist declares “This God is our God for ever and ever” (Ps. 48:14). And we can be confident of this, not only because of the nature of the promise, but with all the other blessings of the covenant like justification, deliverance from death, adoption, the gift of the Spirit, a new heart, and the resurrection of the body, who can imagine this continuing for only a short time?

I think there’s more than enough to meditate on here for while–actually, for an eternity–so I’ll wrap it up. The underlying point I hope you’ll come away with is this: blessing of the covenant is God. We don’t go to God for anything else because anything else we might want is already given to us with the gift of the Triune God who is the overflowing source of all good things. You will never receive a greater promise than this: “I will be your God.”

Soli Deo Gloria 

*I also found a post where Scott Swain comments on the two lengthy Turretin quotes after I decided to write this post. Not only did he save me the time of typing them out, the comments are worth your time.

The Reassuring Derision of the Lord

mockery of ChristIn the long run, there is nothing about God–no activity or attribute–that cannot be a comfort to the Christian. That might strike some of us as too sunny a view on things. I mean, everything?  Obviously, attributes like his compassion and his mercy are comforting, and his creation and salvation, but what about his jealousy, or his anger? Or how about this one? His derision.

What possible comfort and blessing is there in knowing God holds certain things in contempt and derision? Well, let’s consider a couple of the verses:

The wicked plots against the righteous
and gnashes his teeth at him,
but the Lord laughs at the wicked,
for he sees that his day is coming.
(Psalm 37:12-13 ESV)

According the Psalmist, the Lord finds the wicked pretty hilarious. While they’re sitting there plotting against the righteous, thinking of ways to overcome them, the Lord is looking ahead and seeing their end. His day is coming. These plans they set in motion with malicious intent will come to nothing when the Lord comes and judges. An earlier Psalm makes a similar point:

Why do the nations rage and the peoples plot in vain?
The kings of the earth set themselves,
and the rulers take counsel together,
against the LORD and against his Anointed, saying,
“Let us burst their bonds apart
and cast away their cords from us.”
He who sits in the heavens laughs;
the Lord holds them in derision.
Then he will speak to them in his wrath,
and terrify them in his fury, saying,
“As for me, I have set my King
on Zion, my holy hill.”
(Psalm 2:1-6 ESV)

The Nations, the wicked kings of the earth, are plotting evil. They want to reject the Anointed of YHWH, rule themselves and enforce their own wills upon the earth. But what is the YHWH’s response? It’s not insecurity. It’s not trembling fear. It’s the laughter, the derision, that comes from a total confidence of untrammeled authority, despite the feeble attempts of his enemies to overturn his rule. Seeing in the Psalm a type of the coming reign of Christ, Calvin comments thus on God’s laughter:

And David ascribes laughter to God on two accounts; first, to teach us that he does not stand in need of great armies to repress the rebellion of wicked men, as if this were an arduous and difficult matter, but, on the contrary, could do this as often as he pleases with the most perfect ease.

In the second place, he would have us to understand that when God permits the reign of his Son to be troubled, he does not cease from interfering because he is employed elsewhere, or unable to afford assistance, or because he is neglectful of the honor of his Son; but he purposely delays the inflictions of his wrath to the proper time, namely, until he has exposed their infatuated rage to general derision. Let us, therefore, assure ourselves that if God does not immediately stretch forth his hand against the ungodly, it is now his time of laughter; and although, in the meantime, we ought to weep, yet let us assuage the bitterness of our grief, yea, and wipe away our tears, with this reflection, that God does not connive at the wickedness of his enemies, as if from indolence or feebleness, but because for the time he would confront their insolence with quiet contempt.

Despite all outward appearances, God is not idly sitting by. He is biding his time, readying himself to judge and expose the tyrants who would assault the peace of his world to open shame. Again, Calvin comments a bit earlier:

The other consolation which follows is, that when the ungodly have mustered their forces, and when, depending on their vast numbers, their riches, and their means of defense, they not only pour forth their proud blasphemies, but furiously assault heaven itself, we may safely laugh them to scorn, relying on this one consideration, that he whom they are assailing is the God who is in heaven. When we see Christ well nigh overwhelmed with the number and strength of his enemies, let us remember that they are making war against God over whom they shall not prevail, and therefore their attempts, whatever they may be, and however increasing, will come to naught, and be utterly ineffectual. Let us learn, farther, that this doctrine runs through the whole gospel; for the prayer of the apostles which I have just quoted, manifestly testifies that it ought not to be restricted to the person of Christ.

While we might look at the world, see wicked rulers, observe what seem to be tidal waves of unconquerable injustice, we can know that eventually all of these threats to the Kingdom of God will fall before the Lord and we will join in his mockery of evil. Even though we weep now, we can laugh with God now in anticipation of the day when the enemies of our God are finally and fully vanquished.

Indeed, we have even better reason to do so than the Psalmist did. Back then, he was prophesying of a coming day when these things would happen; as the Church, you and I are living on the other side of Christ’s death and resurrection, in which he has, “disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him” (Col. 2:15 ), and made it possible that one day we will cry: “‘Death is swallowed up in victory.’ ‘O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?'” (1 Cor. 15:54-55).

I can’t help but think that as Christ himself was being mocked, spit on, held in derision by the Nations–the Romans and his own countrymen–in the end, the Lord held them in derision knowing that it was in the midst of their injustice that he was laying the foundation for his own, ultimate victory.

Take comfort, then, even in the derision of the Lord. If you are in Christ, he mocks your enemies–even sin, death, and the powers of Hell. They are nothing to him.

What more shall we fear?

 Soli Deo Gloria

The Nonviolent God of the Exodus?

sacrificial lambI keep returning to the issue of the consistency between the Old Testament and the New Testament in it’s portrayal of God because the issue keeps getting brought up in popular (and academic) forums. Driven largely by a particular, non-violent hermeneutic, a significant drive towards screening out large sections of the Old Testament portrayal of God is afoot.

The basic argument is that while the Old Testament is fine for what it is–a limited, time-bound telling of God’s dealings with his people according to their lights–Jesus came along and corrected that view. But now we need to go back and look at the Old Testament in light of Jesus and judge it according to his standard of non-violent love as given us in the Gospels and the Sermon on the Mount, but most of all in his enemy-loving death on the cross. By that standard, much of the Old Testament’s depiction of God’s activity falls short and we ought to gently set it aside as not a full or accurate revelation of who God is. God allowed his children, the Israelites, to tell stories about him as best they could, but now that his children have grown up into the Church, we must speak more accurately of God.

We can call this the “Nonviolent God” premise or hermeneutic. Note, this is not the “Christian nonviolence” position. Though this is inevitably a form of nonviolence, there are many like Preston Sprinkle, or even my Mere Fidelity companion Andrew Wilson, who would advocate for nonviolent practices as a part of the progressive ethic revealed in the New Testament, while still accepting the full truth and authority of the Old Testament.

Still, if we set out the basic argument in logical form, it flows something like this:

Nonviolent God Premise 1: Jesus shows us what God is like in a way that supersedes and corrects all prior conceptions.

Nonviolent God Premise 2: Jesus’ nonviolent practices show us that his God would never perform acts of violent judgment, because he would rather die for his enemies on the Cross than kill them.

Nonviolent God Conclusion 3: Accounts like those of the Invasion and Conquest of Canaan are inconsistent with the God revealed in Jesus Christ, therefore God did not command them or perform them.

These narratives, then, are highly-accommodated tellings or permissible falsehoods allowed in God’s benevolence. But thankfully we have Jesus now, we can see clearly that this is wrong, and we can move on, applying a Jesus-hermeneutic and still appropriating the OT Scriptures as they fit.

But here’s the rub that occurred to me when I was reading Psalm 78: acts like those are the chief events by which the God of Israel is identified and identifies himself in the OT. They are ineliminably at the core of Israel’s narrative understanding of the Lord with whom they are in covenant: “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt” (Exod. 20:2, Deut. 5:6; cf. also, Lev. 26:13; Ps. 81:10). Indeed, one of the main OT confessions of faith is found in Deuteronomy, where worshipers coming to celebrate the festival of the first-fruits. Worshipers were supposed to respond to the priests as they brought their offerings to the LORD:

“And you shall make response before the LORD your God, ‘A wandering Aramean was my father. And he went down into Egypt and sojourned there, few in number, and there he became a nation, great, mighty, and populous. And the Egyptians treated us harshly and humiliated us and laid on us hard labor. Then we cried to the LORD, the God of our fathers, and the LORD heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression. And the LORD brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with great deeds of terror, with signs and wonders. And he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. And behold, now I bring the first of the fruit of the ground, which you, O LORD, have given me.’ And you shall set it down before the LORD your God and worship before the LORD your God. (Deuteronomy 26:5-10 ESV)

The “great deeds of terror and signs and wonders” are precisely those events which our Nonviolent God Hermeneutic ought to lead us to reject as less than appropriate for the God of Jesus Christ.

Which leads me to posit couple more premises and a logical entailment that isn’t usually accepted by more Evangelical advocates of the Nonviolent God hermeneutic, but I think follow naturally.

OT Data Premise 4: The Exodus from Egypt and Redemption of Israel was accomplished by similar, if not more aggressive divine acts of violent mercy and judgment such as: the 10 plagues (rivers of blood, sickness, deadly hale, economic devastation, etc) , the drowning of a massive Egyptian army in Red Sea, and finally, the execution of the firstborn in all the land as an act of Judgment on the gods of the Egyptians (Exod. 12).

OT Data Subpremise 4.5: It is clear from the narrative that each of these acts of divine violence was not ancillary to process of redemption. It occurs precisely in and through these acts of divine judgment. There is simply no way to read out God’s activity (even those who distance God via the destroying angel must admit that it is by God’s permission, will, and command that the angel goes out. Exod 12:13 depicts God himself speaking of passing over house and destroying the firstborn in others).  

OT Data Premise 5: Yet, the God of Israel willed to be known primarily as the God who accomplished the mighty acts of mercy and judgment in the Exodus and Redemption of Israel (cf. Exodus and the hundreds of celebratory references in the Prophets and Psalms). Indeed, the foundational Passover celebration and meal memorialize an act divine violence and mercy–the death of the firstborn–which is surely as problematic as the accounts of the Canaanites (though I think there are better approaches to contextualizing that). 

Logical Entailment of the Nonviolent God Premises: Jesus reveals to us a fundamentally different God than the God of the Exodus and Redemption and therefore a different God than the God of Israel.

At this point, my question becomes, “How is this not some form of Neo-Marcionism?” Note, I don’t mean full-blown Marcionism. That would require a Gnostic rejection of Creation, materiality, and a whole lot more. But how does this hermeneutic not slowly but surely lead us to the conclusion that the God of the Old Testament is a significantly different being than the God of Jesus Christ? How can we continue to narratively-identify them when the chief liberating acts of the one allegedly deny the chief liberating acts of the other?

Again, I don’t really have as much of a problem with the kind of nonviolence approach that says God has a multi-stage plan in which his people can participate in warfare in one stage (Israel) and then move away from it in another (the Church/New Israel). I actually do believe there are significant discontinuities as well as continuities between the Old and the New Testament. Thank God for that, or I, a Gentile, wouldn’t be here. I don’t think the OT Law in its entirety is for applicable, or even advisable to today. I think Jesus has changed some things. Still, the problem comes when we arrive at a “Jesus”-hermeneutic that ends up retooling our entire doctrine of God, the cross (atonement), and entire telling of salvation history.

Let me be clear: most of the Evangelicals flirting with or advocating the Nonviolent God hermeneutic have not gone this far. I am not call them Marcionites straight out or even all Neo-Marcionites. What I am saying is that unchecked or ungrounded by other concerns, it logically flows into something like this. That’s something that ought to give us pause.

Losing the Exodus means losing the God of the Exodus. And that’s a bridge too far.

Soli Deo Gloria

Love, Hate, and A Counter-Intuitive God

love one anotherThe Bible’s a funny thing sometimes. It doesn’t always say what I expect it to. I mean, for instance, we all know that the Bible teaches us to love and not hate, right?

“Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God; and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. The one who does not love does not know God, for God is love. By this the love of God was manifested in us, that God has sent His only begotten Son into the world so that we might live through Him.”  (1 John 4:7-9)

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” -(Matthew 5:43-44)

Texts like this could be multiplied a dozen times over. It’s pretty basic. God is love, so Christians love and don’t hate, right? Except for there are these other types  of verses I run across in the Bible (that could be multiplied) too:

The boastful shall not stand before your eyes;

you hate all evildoers. (Psalm 5:5)

Do I not hate those who hate you, O Lord?

    And do I not loathe those who rise up against you?

 I hate them with complete hatred;

    I count them my enemies. (Ps. 139:21-22)

Let love be genuine. Hate what is evil; hold fast to what is good. (Romans 12:9)

Yet this you have: you hate the works of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate. (Revelation 2:6)

Welp. I guess it’s not that simple now is it?

I mean, with Psalm 139 you could point out that they have to do with Old covenant expressions of loyalty to a covenant Lord. He ‘loves’ his Lord, therefore he ‘hates’ his opponents in the sense that he will  oppose them insofar as they oppose God. Also, this could be the kind of thing that Jesus overturns in the Sermon on the Mount quoted above. That’s harder to do with Psalm 5 talking about God’s ‘hate’ for evil-doers, but you could write it off as hyperbole, or again, OT stuff. I’d be careful about that, but I can see the move being made with some plausibility.

But what about those next two? I mean, in Romans Paul explicitly tells us to let our love be sincere. Later in the very same passage he tells us to forgo vengeance and retaliation against our enemies, even quoting Jesus about ‘blessing those who curse you’ (12:14-21). So he clearly knows Jesus’ teaching. But here, in the same earlier verse, he tells us to ‘hate what is evil’ as a way of describing how we ought to love. Apparently the inspired witness to the Risen Christ saw no contradiction there.

And what about Jesus? Because you know that’s who is talking in Revelation chapter 2. Jesus is giving a message to the Church in Ephesus (the same church that is receiving the letter of 1 John, by the way), and the one thing that he commends them for is ‘hating’ the works of the Nicolaitan, “which I also hate.’ Evidently hating the right things was the only way they were properly imitating Jesus.

So what gives? Which is it? Love or hate? Because it’s not just Old Testament versus New Testament. The question is sharper. Is it Paul or Paul? Is Jesus wrong or is Jesus right?

Dead-End Distinctions?

The issue came up for me as I read an interchange of articles between Jonathan Parnell over at Desiring God and Micah Murray over at Redemption Pictures. Parnell made the argument that our love for sinners and enemies must, paradoxically must include a hate for sinners. It’s not so simple to separate out sinner from sin and so precisely because their sin contributes to their own destruction and self-damnation we must lovingly, in some sense, hate them. Murray then pointed to the clear testimony of God’s love and lovingness in Scripture and said that this is basically the kind of logic only a Calvinist who’d put system ahead of Jesus’ could embrace. The idea that love could include hate is such an obvious dead-end that should tip us off we took a wrong turn somewhere.

Now, initially I get Murray’s apprehension. Aside from the fact that he’s definitely not a Calvinist and predisposed to disagree with anything coming out of Desiring God, it’s initially an off-putting thought. For the most part, it seems like people don’t need to be taught to hate their enemies. That sort of comes naturally to sinners. Also, Parnell’s piece was rather a short, undeveloped article liable to confusion. Lord knows I’ve written a couple of those. I’m unsurprised there’s maybe some cross-talk going on. Still, both are good men trying to love Jesus, honor the Scriptures, and live the Christian life well. So what are we to think?

Given the biblical evidence I surveyed above, it seems worth analyzing the dispute at a few levels. One is how we understand the different senses of the term ‘hate’, how we understand God, and how we understand the nature of love itself.

‘Hate’ and Hate 

Jesus talkingOn the first point, it should be unproblematic to say that that the term ‘hate’ is used in different ways at different times for different situations. I mean, one of the most troubling texts in the Gospels has Jesus saying:

“If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.” (Luke 14:26)

Most commentaries will point out that Jesus is using a hyperbolic idiom here that means something along the lines of “if you don’t love these things less than you do me.” It’s forceful, and shouldn’t be minimized, but Jesus isn’t straightforwardly commanding hate of our parents.

Still, much of the time when God’s hatred is mentioned in Scripture it is a much stronger understanding than merely “like less.” It is his strenuous, moral disapproval or opposition to. It is his righteous, judicial displeasure at evil, often involving his desire to remove the object of his displeasure. Louw-Nida describes the word for ‘hate’ that Jesus uses in Revelation, this way:

μισέω: to dislike strongly, with the implication of aversion and hostility—‘to hate, to detest.’ οἱ δὲ πολῖται αὐτοῦ ἐμίσουν αὐτόν ‘and his fellow countrymen hated him’ Lk 19:14. [1]

The implication is the whatever the Nicolaitans are teaching, it’s detestable and the only appropriate response is the same extreme displeasure that Jesus has with it. James Dunn notes that Paul similarly uses a very forceful word in Romans 12:9, implying a clear, forceful rejection of evil in our use of the gifts in the community.

While we need to be careful about taking sinful, human ideas and experiences of hate into things, it appears that the Bible gives a place for it. Even Jesus does. So, I guess an appeal to language doesn’t quite get us off the hook.

God and ‘God’ 

One other part of the problem is that we have trouble thinking about God having anything more than a strict, black or white, love or hate relationship with creation. We have trouble thinking of him in more than one role at a time. We are people with flat imaginations and so we try to come up with a flat God that suits us.

Thing is, the Scriptures give us a multi-dimensional God, with multi-dimensional relationships to the world and his creatures. I mean, we see this right we when open up the first few pages of the Bible. We find out right off the bat that God is a Creator, one who speaks all things into existence out of love and delight (Gen 1-2). We also learn in very short order that God is also a Judge, discerning right and wrong, condemning and cursing rebellion and sin, while at the same time proving to be a merciful Redeemer (Gen 3). Creator. Judge. Redeemer. Three dimensions to his relationship to his Image-bearers right there in three short chapters.

I hold to at least some form of the doctrine of God’s simplicity. God isn’t something we can chop up in parts and say, “this is his love, and that part over there to the left is his holiness” or something. God’s love is holy; God’s righteousness is merciful; God’s power wise. Is it really that hard then to think describing the infinite God’s attitude towards us might require a more than one or two words, some of which might seem initially contradictory? As I noted the other day, God used more than one name to describe himself and we need all of them.

The other factor at work is that we must remember that God’s emotions are not strictly like our emotions. God is impassible, which means that his emotions are more appropriately thought of analogically as expressing his judgments about certain states of affairs, rather than adrenaline-laced flare-ups of the divine blood-stream.

Love and ‘Love’

Typically modern culture thinks of love in terms of total acceptance and affirmation. To love is to accept and affirm the beloved totally and without reservation. Following off of what we’ve seen above, the more we think about it, the more plausible it is that God’s love includes his intense displeasure towards some things in the world he loves. As I’ve noted before, Miroslav Volf  (not a Calvinist, btw) writes about the appropriateness of God’s wrath because of his love:

Or think of Rwanda in the last decade of the past century, where 800,000 people were hacked to death in one hundred days! How did God react to the carnage? By doting on the perpetrators in a grandparently fashion? By refusing to condemn the bloodbath but instead affirming the perpetrators basic goodness? Wasn’t God fiercely angry with them? Though I used to complain about the indecency of the idea of God’s wrath, I came to think that I would have to rebel against a God who wasn’t wrathful at the sight of the world’s evil. God isn’t wrathful in spite of being love. God is wrathful because God is love.

-Miroslav Volf, Free of Charge: Giving and Forgiving in a Culture Stripped of Grace pg. 139

Christina Cleveland made much the same point in talking about the rage of some in the black community over the recent injustices in Ferguson, MO: “the rage they feel is the rage that God feels towards injustice. In a sense, they are imaging forth God’s justice to an unjust world.” It’s entirely appropriate to feel that same intense displeasure towards systemic racism that God does–to hate what God hates precisely because God is love.

Let’s push further, though, because the reality is that this injustice isn’t some abstraction floating off in the ether; it makes its dark home in our hearts.

God made us in his Image and so he does love us. And yet, there’s a point where it makes sense to say he hates what we’ve made of ourselves. It’s as if you knew a young man with scads of artistic potential, training, and a natural eye for beauty, who could reach the heights of a Rembrandt or a Picasso, and yet, because he took up with drugs, addiction followed and he’d be reduced to ravaged shell of his former self, barely able to scrawl out a stick figure. You still love him. You’d pity him as well. But there’s a very real, honest sense in which you could say that because you love him, you hate what he’s made of himself.

Or again, it’s like a master painter who works tirelessly on on a work of art, leaves it on a trip, and upon coming home he finds that it’s been smeared and torn up. He loves what he made, but he hates the smears and the tears that now form a part of it. Augustine says something similar here:

‘God shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us’ [Romans 5:8]. Therefore, he loved us even when we practiced enmity toward him and committed wickedness. Thus in a marvelous and divine way he loved us even when he hated us. For he hated us for what we were that he had not made; yet because our wickedness had not entirely consumed his handiwork, he knew how, at the same time, to hate in each one of us what we had made, and to love what he had made.

God loves us as his Image-bearers, and yet God is right to hate the way we’ve destroyed the Image. Think of it this way. Imagine God speaking to a young man in this fashion:

“You know little Johnny, that part of you that lies, is racist, and leads you to abuse women? You know what I’m talking about? Well, I want you to know it’s precious to me. I love it because I love you–all of you, just the way you are.”

Wouldn’t that be terrible? Does anybody imagine that a good, kind, gracious, just God would ever love the part of me that leads me to self-destruction? Can he? Can we? No. It’s precisely because he loves little Johnny that he is completely and bitterly opposed to that part of his character that is abusive to women, lies, and loves violence. He loves Johnny though he is racist, though he deplores the reality of his racism. Precisely because he’s good and loving he has to deplore that part of his current character. Most moral education presupposes this. I may love my little son, but I hate that he lies and will lovingly discipline that lying streak out of him if I can so that he doesn’t ruin his own life.

C.S. LewisC.S. Lewis (also not a Calvinist) says something similar in The Problem of Pain about what we know to be true in our own experience of guilt:

Now at the moment when a man feels real guilt – moments too rare in our lives – all these blasphemies vanish away. Much, we may feel, can be excused to human infirmities: but not this – this incredibly mean and ugly action which none of our friends would have done, which even such a thorough-going little rotter as X would have been ashamed of, which we would not for the world allow to be published. At such a moment we really do know that our character, as revealed in this action, is, and ought to be, hateful to all good men, and, if there are powers above man, to them. A God who did not regard this with unappeasable distaste would not be a good being. We cannot even wish for such a God – it is like wishing that every nose in the universe were abolished, that smell of hay or roses or the sea should never again delight any creature, because our own breath happens to stink. (pg. 51)

Or again, I love my wife soul and body and because of that, I would hate any cancer cells that were a part of her threatening to destroy her. In that sense I could say that I hate her body that was destroying her. But I only do so because I love her and her body. Actually, my wife has said that during the years when my body had been breaking down and was causing me a good deal of pain, stress, and was a continual burden, she hated my body as it currently was precisely because of her love for me.

Take Care

We need to take real care about these things and a blog post, even a long one, can’t treat the subject with the patience it deserves. A full discussion would need to address ideas like the jealousy of God as well as the very prominent theme of God’s particular love for his people Israel.

That said, language about hate and God are both dangerous when taken out of their proper biblical context. Whatever Paul means by ‘hate’, he is very clear in the passage that he doesn’t mean it to lead to retaliation or violence, but rather prayer and good in response to evil.  What’s more, I don’t really see much in the way of Scripture commanding Christians cultivating hate in their heart for persons. In fact, most of it, quite intuitively, runs the other way. The real danger of distortion and abuse means we need to tread lightly here.

At the same time, we need to take care that we don’t dispense with proper biblical teaching because of over-quick reactions to counter-intuitive truths. Some might be sniffing saying, “Really? This sounds like a roundabout defense of the despicable old ‘hate the sin, love the sinner’ canard.” And you may be right to a degree. Separating sin from sinner is a difficult business. But are our other options much better? “Hate the sinner and the sin”, full stop? No, that’s not right. Or, even more foreign to biblical thought, “Love the sinner and love the sin?” You can hear Paul crying from heaven “May it never be!”

I suppose I’ll end where I started: the Bible doesn’t always say what I expect it to, even when it comes to love. Then again, I’d be suspicious if it did. My love is so weak and so paltry at times. It’s really a tired, half-hearted thing if I’m honest. When I come to the love of God, the surprising, counter-intuitive love of Jesus displayed on the cross, the cross which exposes all my darknesses and shames, should I not expect to find some edges I’d never imagined?

[1] Louw, J. P., & Nida, E. A. (1996). Vol. 1: Greek-English lexicon of the New Testament: Based on semantic domains (electronic ed. of the 2nd edition.) (762–763). New York: United Bible Societies.

Prodigal Father or Avenging Vineyard Owner? Two Parables, Same Jesus, Same God

Jesus and the crowdsIf you’ve been reading this blog for more than a short amount of time you’ll know one of my consistent themes is the importance of a multi-layered, non-reductionistic view of the God of Israel. Indeed, I just wrote about that yesterday. The Scriptures don’t present a flat portrait of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, so neither should we.

One of the most popular ways of flattening and distorting our picture of God is through the violent/peaceful, or loving/wrathful dichotomy. While in the past this was done in a more straight Old Testament v. New Testament split, contemporary proponents focus more on what Andrew Wilson has called the Jesus Tea Strainer hermeneutic. In a nutshell, you take the person of Jesus, or the peaceful teachings of Jesus as you understand them, and then propose to strain out whatever bits of the OT, or even the NT, contradict the loving portrait of God that Jesus reveals to us. Jesus’ picture of a Fatherly, non-violent, ‘Abba’-God who loves his enemies to the death ought to be normative, relativizing all other portrayals (even those in Scripture) in light of its purity and ultimacy.

Let me be clear here: I’m all for Jesus being the ultimate revelation of God. I’m also all for reading the OT and the NT through the person and work of Christ. But we must pay attention to all of Jesus’ teachings, because more often than not they cut across our too-simple dichotomies and boxes. Take for instance his presentation of God in the parables.

Prodigal Father or Avenging Vineyard Owner?

Most of us are familiar with his teaching on the parable of the prodigal son, or rather, the two lost sons (Luke 15:11-32). Jesus here teaches us about the astounding, category-shattering grace of the Father for his lost sons. Both prodigals and Pharisaic humbuggers are invited to experience the humbling, forgiving, and astonishing love of God.

God truly is an ‘Abba’, a Father we can run to despite our worst sins, fears, failures, and shames, who take us up and embrace, covering us in the finest robes of his righteousness and restoring us to full rights as sons and daughters. God here holds no grudges, suffers shame in our place, and reveals his welcoming and inclusive heart. We need this parable. need this parable. It’s one that I cling to and teach joyfully to my students on a regular basis.

Now, if we’re going to understand the God of Jesus Christ through the parables he told, I think it’s worth examining another from the same Gospel, which doesn’t get quite the same airplay.

I’ll quote it in full here:

And he began to tell the people this parable: “A man planted a vineyard and let it out to tenants and went into another country for a long while. When the time came, he sent a servant to the tenants, so that they would give him some of the fruit of the vineyard. But the tenants beat him and sent him away empty-handed. And he sent another servant. But they also beat and treated him shamefully, and sent him away empty-handed. And he sent yet a third. This one also they wounded and cast out. Then the owner of the vineyard said, ‘What shall I do? I will send my beloved son; perhaps they will respect him.’ But when the tenants saw him, they said to themselves, ‘This is the heir. Let us kill him, so that the inheritance may be ours.’ And they threw him out of the vineyard and killed him. What then will the owner of the vineyard do to them? He will come and destroy those tenants and give the vineyard to others.” When they heard this, they said, “Surely not!” But he looked directly at them and said,

“What then is this that is written:

“‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone’?
Everyone who falls on that stone will be broken to pieces,
and when it falls on anyone, it will crush him.”
(Luke 20:9-18)

Here Jesus tells a parable against the religious leaders of his day and in this too he speaks of God the Father. He teaches first of mercy and grace of God in the person of the vineyard owner who continually sent messenger after messenger, prophet after prophet, to warn wayward Israel and especially the tenants who were supposed to be keeping watch over, but instead wickedly spurn his cautions and entreaties. Finally, as a great act of mercy and peacemaking, he sends his own Son, the heir to all that he has to plead with them and turn from their ways. But what do they do? They kill him in hopes of holding on to power.

What then does Jesus say the vineyard owner will do in response?

“He will come and destroy those tenants and give the vineyard to others.”

God the great Vineyard Owner is also He whom Jesus came to reveal. God is merciful, long-suffering even to the point of self-sacrifice for the sake of his enemies. And yet, he will not suffer them forever. If they will not repent, or seek the pardon made available in the Son, he will put a just end to their violence and injustice.

This is Regular Thing

What’s more, this angle on God isn’t a bizarre aberration in his teaching in the parables. Unlike the parable of the Prodigal sons, that of the Wicked Tenants is recounted in both Matthew (21:33-46) and Mark (12:1-12). We find Jesus’ parable of the Great Wedding Feast where those who don’t come, or come without the proper dress, are cast out into the darkness (Matthew 22:1-14). Or again, the parable where the King ends up throwing the unmerciful servant in jail to be tormented for his lack of mercy; Jesus ends that one saying, “So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart” (Matthew 18:21-35). Or the parable of the faithless servant who abuses the other servants in his master’s absence. This one is actually pretty extreme, with Jesus declaring that upon his return, “The master will cut him in pieces and make him share the fate of the disobedient” (Luke 12:46).

I remember being shocked the summer I taught through them with my students as story after story he gives us both the grace, mercy, and a significant dose of the judgment of God. I guess I shouldn’t have, since that sounds just like the God of the Old Testament and the rest of the New.

Returning again to the parable of the Wicked Tenants, in itself it forms an argument against narrowly restricting our Jesus hermeneutic solely to the time of his first coming. There’s Dominical warrant for the idea that we must read his peaceful first coming alongside his more forceful Second Coming where he will, as the creed puts it, ‘judge the quick and the dead.’

From angle after angle, then, these overly-restrictive ‘Jesus’ hermeneutics end up falling against the stone of the Son and dashing themselves to pieces.

Soli Deo Gloria