Friday, September 23, 2005

Logical Priority: Love or Wrath

I’m going to play a game here that I don’t normally play.  I think that I’ll call it the “logical priority” game.  This is a game that gets played a lot in Reformed theological circles.  Which has logical priority, God’s decree of Redemption or God’s decree of Sin?  Or, what about regeneration and faith?  Sometimes, there are significant points of concern at stake.  Other times, I fear that it is simply a game.

But today, I’m going to play the game.  Which has logical priority:  God’s love or God’s wrath?  Or how about this?  Is God’s default “emotion” love or wrath?  But these are perhaps silly ways to ask the question.  Let me rephrase it.

What is the fundamental nature of my relationship with God?  Is it fundamentally a relationship of love, or fundamentally a relationship of wrath?  Of course, all the good Christians out there in the crowd have already answered the question.  Our relationship with God is fundamentally one of love.  That’s what we all say.

Right?

Or do we?

I’m going to stroll out on a limb here and suggest that, at least within Reformed circles, we do not really believe that our relationship with God is fundamentally one of love, nor do we believe that God’s default “emotion” is love.

I submit that, in Reformed circles, we believe that God defaults to being angry.  However, God, in His sovereign indifference, randomly selected some to be saved.  To these exceptions, He has opted to show His love, but this love functions largely to stifle His default wrath.  So, those who are elect and have been saved now have a buffer zone between God’s wrath and us.  Therefore, it’s possible to make God happy now.  Of course, God is still the Picky Stickler in the sky, so even those who are loved by God still need to tiptoe around Him.

But is this how the Bible describes God?

I’m going to start by acknowledging, nay, embracing the Biblical teaching that God becomes angry.  Only a fool or an idiot could read the Bible and say otherwise.  But, is the wrath of God really His default state?

Here’s how God describes Himself.  “Yahweh, Yahweh God, compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in lovingkindness and truth; who keeps lovingkindness for thousands, who forgives iniquity, transgression and sin; yet He will by no means leave the guilty unpunished, visiting the iniquity of fathers on the children and on the grandchildren to the third and fourth generations.”  (Exodus 34:6-7)  Is there wrath in this passage?  Certainly.  However, what is the overwhelming emphasis?  Love.  (A side note.  As I was transcribing this passage, I was struck by the apparent contradiction.  God punishes the guilty, yet He forgives.  How do these two things fit together?)

Or what about Psalm 103?  "Yahweh is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.  He will not always chide, nor will he keep his anger forever.  He does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities.  For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him; as far as the east is from the west, so far does he remove our transgressions from us." (Psalm 103:8-12)  Notice how David starts by quoting from Exodus and then elaborating.  For some reason, David doesn't think that the point of the Exodus passage is God's wrath, but God's love.

And then, of course, one of the classic passages:  “Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God.   Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love.”  (1 John 4:7-8)  God is love.  God is not wrath.  As a result, we are to be characterized by this love.

It is love that is supposed to be the root cause for our obedience.  Jesus said, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.”  (John 14:15)  Jesus doesn’t threaten us with a wrathful God, just waiting for one of us to slip up.  Rather, He calls us to obey because of our desire for the One Who waits for us at the end of our journey.

There is a place for fear in the Christian life.  Our God does become angry, and we are wise to remember this.  Jesus did say, “And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” (Matthew 10:28)  And yet, I cannot help but think that this is a secondary motivation.  I compare fear to the safety net that trapeze artists use.  We are given fear to catch us when our love fails, but it is the lower motivation.

John writes, “By this is love perfected with us, so that we may have confidence for the day of judgment, because as he is so also are we in this world.  There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love.”  (1 John 4:17-18)  Perfect love casts out fear.  For now, our love is not perfect, so we are given fear.  But, in the end, there will be no fear.

Proverbs says that the fear of Yahweh is the beginning of wisdom (Proverbs 9:10).  Yet the end of wisdom is love.

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