Being God’s Beloved: Reflections on God’s Love.
As we come towards the midpoint of our reflections, we step away from the scriptures for a while and reflect on some important theological principles concerning God’s love. These draw, in various ways, on what we have covered so far, and also anticipate what is yet to come.
Today, I invite you to think about what you think is the dominant or primary attribute of God. This is, in some ways, a return to Day 3, where we reflected on the heart of God. So, you have the advantage of already knowing my answer – love is at the heart of God. However, not all Christians agree on this – at least, not in the way I have presented it. So, this is a question that you need to think about for yourself. To decide what is central to God, what is dominant in God.
Let me present you with a commonly held view, particularly by Christians in the reformed (Calvinist) tradition, which argues for the centrality of God’s holiness. I am drawing for this on a book by Ronald Wallace, called The atoning death of Christ.
Wallace starts on the first page with the problem of sin, which he defines as “a violation of the sacred order of life established by God for his people”. In the following line, he links sin (this violation of God’s order) with God’s holiness: “[God’s] holiness was challenged by [sin], and his personal bearing and life were insulted by it. He could no longer look upon his people with favour but had to avert his face from the taint of sin.” Sin, then, is something that offends God personally, and specifically God’s holiness. The holiness of God is central in this presentation, and makes sin anathema to God. God is sin-repellent – God cannot stand to be anywhere near the stench of sin. And because we are inherently sinful, we become an unpleasant odour in God’s nostrils.
God’s inevitable reaction, says Wallace, is to destroy all who were involved, in any way, in the sin – this is the wrath of God. “Behind the manifestation of God’s judgement there is God’s own inward reaction and hatred of our sin that we cannot begin to conceive. It is only because he restrains this, within himself, that we are not consumed (Lam. 3:22). We noted in our Old Testament study how God appears to struggle with himself to control himself.” Wallace sees an ongoing tension within God between God’s desire to obliterate us and God’s love for us.
But while it may seem to us that God’s love constrains God’s holiness (which is the source of God’s wrath), Wallace sees it as the other way round. God’s holiness is dominant, and constrains God’s love: “There is not only love in the world which we have forsaken and to which we seek to return in reconciliation, but also a law which encloses love. The God to whom we seek to return is one whose love expresses itself in ways that are constant and upon which trust can be built.” So, according to Wallace, God’s love is subordinate to God’s law. In other words, God may desire to love us unconditionally and forgive us freely, but there is a ‘law’ that constrains God’s love, and that ‘law’ is God’s holiness, God’s justice, God’s need for purity. “At Calvary we see love at the centre, yet enclosed in law… We can… regard justice as the law of God’s being, and indeed of his love. It is grounded in the nature of God himself. God could not ignore sin because he cannot ignore his own holiness.”
So, that is Wallace’s view: God’s holiness is dominant, and while there is love in the heart of God, it is constrained by God’s holiness, thus love is not free to act as it chooses.
I wish to suggest to you that the opposite is closer to the truth of God’s character, namely that while holiness is indeed an important and even central characteristic of God, God’s holiness is overwhelmed by God’s love, so that we are more at risk of being flooded by God’s love than by God’s wrath.
God is indeed holy, righteous, just and pure. There is ample witness to this in the scriptures. And God has a vision for who humanity should be and how we should behave. When we deviate from this vision and wind up as less that we were created to be, God is upset. ‘Upset’ is not a very appropriate word for God, though – it trivialises God response to our sin. ‘Anger’ or ‘wrath’ are surely more appropriate words for the Divine response.
But God’s wrath is tempered by God’s intense love for humanity. This love is so central and so powerful that it intercepts and cools down wrath. God’s love is like a cold shower or like a fire extinguisher. It simply shuts off wrath. And because, if we could quantify these things, God has a lot more love than wrath, love always wins – like in rock-paper-scissors, rock always beats scissors. Imagine it like this. God’s wrath is like a raging bonfire, with flames reaching metres into the air, ready to consume everything around it. But God’s love is like the Niagara Falls – a massive quantity of water. It really doesn’t matter how big the fire is, the Falls will always extinguish it.
While Wallace argues that God’s love is enclosed by law, but I suggest that God’s law is enclosed by love. We see this throughout the Old Testament. The Hebrews repeatedly lived against God’s vision for them, knocking against God’s holiness and evoking God’s wrath. But God’s chesed (God’s loving kindness, rooted in the covenant or commitment that God had made to the Hebrews) was more powerful than God’s wrath, and so God repeatedly forgave them. God instituted the patterns of sacrifice to help the Hebrews discover ways to turn from sin and return to God, patterns that facilitated their holiness, so that they could enjoy the fullness of life that God had designed for them.
Wallace says that while God’s love may want to forgive freely and unconditionally, God’s holiness (God’s law) checks God’s love and requires payment for sin. But I suggest that while God’s holiness (God’s law) may want to punish people for their sin, God’s love checks that impulse and reminds God of what is most important to God, namely God’s extravagant love for God’s beloved. And so love triumphs, every time.
The distinction that I am drawing may seem insubstantial – all the elements are present in both Wallace’s and my argument – it is just the order of precedence that has changed. But in fact it makes a tremendous difference. If love is enclosed in law, as Wallace argues, then our relationship with God must be based on fear, because God’s wrath is always only just held in check by God’s love. No matter how significant the cross as an expression of God’s love, wrath is always there. And holiness trumps love, so holiness is the first thing we encounter in God – not love. This is a dangerous God – “It is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Hebrews 10:31).
On the other hand, if law is enclosed in love, then love is the first thing we encounter in God. And this allows us to approach God in freedom and without fear. As God turns and notices us, God’s immediate response is not one of holiness, but one of love. It is the dominant response that we will enjoy – God turns and smiles and opens his arms. As we enter God’s embrace we will realise that we are not the way God desires us to be, the way God dreams for us to be. Here we are encountering God’s holiness – holiness is most certainly there, but it lies behind and subordinate to love. Within the loving embrace and in a response of love, we desire to be holy as God is holy. Not out of fear, but in loving response, a desire to be like God.
I invite you to weigh up these two approaches to the relationship between God’s love and God’s holiness and decide for yourself. Of course, I hope that the previous 12 days will help you see the strong thread of love that runs through the Old Testament.
Meditation for the Day
Reflect on this theological question – what is central to God? Love or holiness? What have you learned during your life as a child of God? What do you think now?
Prayer for the Day
Holy God, thank you that you have standards for and expectations of me. Help me to not fear your holiness, but to trust your extravagant love for me.