Parsing God’s character can lead us in the wrong direction.
When we read the Scriptures, we learn things that are true of God, and these inform and circumscribe our understanding of his person and work. This shapes our relationship with God. For example, at the start of the epistle to Titus, Paul says (almost in passing) that God never lies. This tells us God is truthful. We can find many other examples like this throughout the Bible. God is holy. He is love. He is independent of his creation, not requiring anything. To say this much tells you that Scripture speaks of God personally. We usually speak of these as God’s attributes, but this reflects but dimly on what we’re describing. We shouldn’t think of God’s attributes like “features” of a product, added on in some way to augment who he intrinsically is. Given this, we are still bound to speak of God in these terms because we have no other way to do so.
The danger in speaking of God as having attributes is that we understand him in such a way that we parse his identity into components. Matthew Barrett observes, “the perfections of God are not like a pie, as if we sliced up the pie into different pieces, love being 10 percent, holiness 15 percent, omnipotence 7 percent, and so on. Unfortunately, this is how many Christians talk about God today, as if love, holiness, and omnipotence were all different parts of God; God being evenly divided among his various attributes. Some even go further, believing some attributes to be more important than others.” (Matthew Barrett, None Greater: The Undomesticated Attributes of God, p. 72).
Barrett’s words come in a chapter of his book, where he discusses God’s simplicity. Simplicity means that what God is, he is in all of himself. We do not arrive at a kind of “sum” of what God is by adding together the things Scripture presents as his attributes. To put it another way, God is not composed of parts.
Does the atonement show love alone?
Where we see this most often is in speaking about the atonement. That the death of Jesus on the cross is an expression of God’s love is without question. Jesus has loved his enemies (us!) enough to die for them. But that is not the only thing displayed on the cross. The justice and wrath of God against sin is also shown. Propitiation is one of the things Paul says is happening at the cross, and propitiation includes the idea of wrath satisfied. It is at this point we see many do what Barrett cautions against making some attributes more important than others. The love of God is magnified to such an extent that they purge God’s anger and wrath over sin from the atonement as neither necessary nor relevant. If God is not angered by sin and rebellion, why was the death of Christ necessary? God could have forgiven our sin without his Son dying on the cross, could he not?
Some of those who affirm, as I do, the atonement is both penal and substitutionary get diverted by the question and answer with unnecessary speculation. That is, they may say that God’s holiness demands payment for sin or that God must punish rebellion to uphold his righteousness. But this exposes us to the charge of putting a requirement upon God, of infringing on his right to do as he wishes. I understand the thinking and, in the main, agree with the sentiment, but it is better to constrain ourselves to what God has revealed in Scripture. When we speak not of what God is required to do but what he has revealed, we are on firmer ground.
The atonement reveals there is no need to diminish one aspect to highlight another. The cross displays wrath and mercy, love, and justice. Both testaments are replete with passages that speak of this, but a couple of samples will demonstrate. In Isaiah 53:5, the prophet has said,
“But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed.”
This finds an echo in Romans 4:25, where Paul says that Jesus was “was delivered up for our trespasses.” In Galatians 1:4 also, where he says Jesus “gave himself for our sins.” John 3:16 is the most famous example of God’s love displayed in giving his son. That God is love meets no opposition, but it should also be uncontroversial that our sins incur guilt, and guilt incurs punishment. The Babylonian captivity is unintelligible if God is not punishing Israel.
In the cross, God is both just and the justifier of those who have faith in Jesus. If God’s wrath against sin is not satisfied, it is difficult to understand how Paul can proclaim him just because he identifies that the punishment for sins done before—in prior ages—had been “passed over” by God, looking forward to the cross.
Explaining away the uncomfortable.
Indeed, some have explained the cross in other ways. God is allowing rebellious humanity to do their worst to Jesus. Or that the withdrawal of God the Father from Jesus on the cross was the extent of God’s wrath. But these explanations do not make sense of the rest of revelation, which speaks of God’s displeasure, indeed, his anger against sin. How some commentators have tried to make sense of this is to say that the prophets of the Old Testament, who spoke with clarity of God’s wrath against sin, were in fact culturally conditioned by their ancient near east milieu to speak as they did. Therefore, it really isn’t God speaking.
But this is to make a different argument. It is to say that God hasn’t given a trustworthy revelation in Scripture. Rather than bring all the biblical evidence together to arrive at coherence, it dismisses and demotes part of that revelation as unworthy of God. Such a view tends to favor what we find comfortable and jettison what we find distasteful.
Every generation must come to the Bible to answer the questions of “who is God, and what has he told us about himself?” We fail in answering these questions by saying God is only love or that his love makes wrath, holiness, and justice null and void. With the atonement, we arrive at a view of God that is faithful to what he has told us of himself only by weighing all of revelation. When we do, we rejoice that God’s wrath was satisfied at the cross, and his love is all the more amazing because it rests on his enemies. What God is, he is in all of himself, and when Jesus atoned for our sin at Calvary, God’s love and justice, his mercy, and wrath were all involved.
Matt Ferris lives in Wheaton, Illinois and is involved in Bible study ministry in his local church. He is also active in children's ministry and has written a number of hymns. His books include Evangelicals Adrift: Supplanting Scripture with Sacramentalism, If One Uses It Lawfully: The Law of Moses and the Christian Life and Losing Religion, Finding Jesus: Moving beyond Cultural Christianity. He and his wife have been married since 1987 and have four adult children and six grandchildren. He blogs at gentlemantheologian.com. You can follow him on Twitter @ferrismattic.