Perhaps one of the most pervasive uniformed views of the Old and New Testament which leads to a misunderstanding of the cross is that which poses the Old Testament (OT) God against the New Testament (NT) God. As if there were such a thing as two separate Gods, it has frequently been said that the God of the OT is a God of "fire and brimstone," while that of the NT is a "loving" God. However, such a theology either implies polytheism or calls into question the very immutability of God, which is axiomatically the foundation of faith and trust in Him. Furthermore, if the will of God is seen in this errant perspective, the NT reader will have a tendency to drive a wedge within the persons of the trinity. The fact is, God has always been a loving God, even in the OT; and, God still is a God who hates sin.
The Holy and Just Love of God
That God is love is a plain biblical truth. Even in today's liberal era, there's hardly a theological or biblical reference, church creed, hymnal, or sermon that does not echo the truth that God is love. God's people must affirm the love of God as an attribute of God.
But what is meant by godly love? Glenn Schaefer rightly describes the advent of the Son into the world as the "pinnacle" of God's expression of love . Certainly God's love is a great theme of the NT. This is what the Holy Spirit has revealed through the Apostle John, "for God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life" (John 3:16); and again, "in this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins" (1 John 4:10).
As such, the NT does indeed reveal the fullness of the love of God . In fact, although the NT uses several words to describe love, the term, agape, stands above the others in its ability to denote the special love of God. Using this term, the Apostle John not only describes God and his actions as loving, but says, "God is love" (1 John 4:8) [emphasis added]. Of its many uses in the NT, J. P. Baker points out that agape is not based on "a felt need in the loving person nor on a desire called forth by some attractive feature(s) in the one loved" (Elwell, p. 494). Godly love is a benevolent love that is extended freely to men both generally and personally. It is initiated by God, and it stems from the very nature of God. His love is natural expression at its purest.
Despite the clarity and fullness of the revelation of the love of God in the NT, though, it cannot be forgotten that the love feast table of the NT is set by the OT. From the creation of man, the fall of man in Genesis 3, and finally to the incarnation of the Christ, God's love was always present. God has always had a people for himself with whom he enters into a voluntary, loving relationship. The Hebrew word, chashak, is often used to refer to this special relational love: "but because the LORD loves you, and because He would keep the oath which He swore to your fathers, the LORD has brought you out with a mighty hand, and redeemed you from the house of bondage, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt" (Deut. 7:8). God joins and joined in a special relationship with his covenant people. Rather than saying that God covenanted with his people "even" in the OT, it ought to be said that God covenanted with his people "especially" in the OT. As the psalmist exclaims, "He has set his love upon Me" (Ps. 91:14), he shortly thereafter reminds us that the Lord has "known" him. God's love is real and deep. It has always been so.
Futhermore, the OT Hebrew words, 'ahab (See: Deut. 23:5; 2 Sam. 12:24; Neh. 13:26, Ps. 78:68; Isa. 41:8-10; Hos. 14:4; Mal. 1:2) and 'ahabah (See: Deut. 7:8; 1 Ki. 10:9; 2 Chr. 2:11, 9:8; Jer. 31:3; Zep. 3:17) similarly reveal to us and affirm the absolute and unconditional love of God. Although Solomon had sinned as king of Israel, the prophet, Nehemiah, could still write of him, "Yet among many nations there was no king like him, who was beloved of his God; and God made him king over all Israel..." (Neh. 13:26). God loves his people. The list of related words could continue by adding the multitude of occurrences of chen (which denotes God's grace and favor: the list of biblical occurrences is enormous but for a few that appear early in the covenant history of Israel, see: Gen. 6:8, 18:3; Ex. 33:12) and checed (which denotes God's mercy or loving-kindness: see: Gen 24:27, 39:21; Ex. 15:13, 20:6, 34:6-7; Ruth 2:20; 1 Sa. 20:14; 2 Sa. 9:3; 1 Ki. 3:6, 8:23; 1 Chr. 16:34; Ezra 3:11; Ps. 13:5, 25:10, 36:5-7, 52:1, 85, 136, 144:2-3; Jer. 31:3). Certainly, the love of God is present in the OT and it is as deep as the love of the NT. It only differs in that its fullness had not yet been revealed at those times.
Yet, the theologian Lorraine Boettner rightfully notes that "love, in itself, is irrational and capricious except as it is governed by holiness..." (Studies in Theology, p. 289). In other words, God's love is never divorced from His holiness. For example, the proclaimed love of God in Ex 34:6 is immediately followed by the contrasting judgment of the Lord in v. 7:
The Holy and Just Wrath of God
The Westminster Confession of Faith describes God as a being who is "most just, and terrible in His judgments, hating all sin, and who will by no means clear the guilty" (2:2). Two things are affirmed here: 1) God is just and the display of sin before his righteousness is the root cause of his indignation; 2) in His indignation, He remains just. The words of Moses support both of these ideas, "The LORD is longsuffering and abundant in mercy, forgiving iniquity and transgression; but He by no means clears the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and fourth generation." (Num 14:18). God's anger is not rash, nor is it without self-control (Ps 103:8; Isa 48:9; Jonah 4:2; Nah 1:3). It too, not unlike his love, stems from his nature and the very perfect being that he is. As the prophet Habakkuk writes, God's is "of purer eyes than to behold evil" that he cannot "look on wickedness" (Hab. 1:13). The OT writings are clear on the matter: "God is a just judge, and God is angry with the wicked every day" (Ps. 7:11. See also Num 11:1-10; Deut 29:27; 2 Sam 6:7; Isa 5:25; 42:25; Jer 44:6; Ps 79:6).
These same concepts are consistent in the NT and are not forsaken amidst the love of God that is freshly consummated during the advent of Our Lord. In fact, just as the love of God reaches a pinnacle in the NT, the revelation of God's wrath explodes into full display also. Therefore, after the death of Christ, Paul can still claim that the wages of sin is death (Rom. 6:23); also, the writer of Hebrews can claim that God is "a consuming fire" (Heb. 12:29) and that it is "a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God" (Heb. 10:31); finally, at the very end of the NT, John reminds us of the severity of Christ's reign for all who are not the Lamb's: "Now out of His mouth goes a sharp sword, that with it He should strike the nations. And He Himself will rule them with a rod of iron. He Himself treads the winepress of the fierceness and wrath of Almighty God." (Rev. 19:15).
That God was ever a God more wrathful than loving, that he is now more loving than wrathful, these two notions are unfounded scripturally, as the above discussion demonstrated. In fact, when one considers the simplicity of God (discussed in the introduction to The Character of God, Part I) and the immutability of God, it is only natural to expect that God is wholly both throughout time. Neither attribute covers, supersedes, or excludes the other, although some are expressed more strongly at various points in time, depending on whether God is presented with evil or good. God's response is rooted in his very Being, which produces his holy and perfect responses throughout time. Ultimately, the two come to full fruition in the cross of Christ, where God's wrath toward the sinner was poured upon the Christ on the cross as an act of love and forgiveness unto God's people. The cross, then, is a wonderful example of how two attributes of God are manifested simultaneously. Neither attribute was absent prior to the cross; nor will either be absent after.
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