“Behold therefore the goodness and severity of God.”
I have just finished discussing two difficult chapters about God’s character; God as judge and God as wrathful. Without a doubt, the reader of His Word will find multiple examples of God as judge and multiple examples of God’s wrath. The premise of J.I. Packer’s book Knowing God is that through a careful exploration of God’s Word, one can pinpoint characteristics of God and therefore we can know Him.
But what are we to do with Romans 11:22? Can God be good and severe at the same time?
Most of us like consistency. I have been accused of being confusing by my spouse, inconsistent and at times downright hard to understand, but I am a mere human. I guess I can claim the right to be mixed up, but can we tolerate this in God?
Let’s provide some context for Romans [written by the Apostle Paul]. “Behold therefore the goodness and severity of God: on them which fell, severity; but toward thee, goodness.” He is referring to the Jews of Jesus’ day who for the most part, rejected Him. God will be severe with those who reject Him. The people who experienced His “goodness” are the pagans, the Gentiles. However, Paul wants the readers of his words to make sure and see the dual nature of God’s character; He is capable of good, but He is also capable of being severe.
Packer says it this way: “Both appear alongside each other in the economy of grace. Both must be acknowledged together if God is to be truly known.”
Most of us like consistency. We look for patterns in human behavior. Sometimes when we don’t see them, we create them. We love to put complex people in boxes and the quicker we can do that, the more we are at ease. We can come to the conclusion that we “know them”.
But we don’t.
Today Packer asserts that many Christians really don’t know God. He calls our knowledge of God “modern muddle-headedness.” People say they believe in God, but they have no idea who it is they believe in or what difference believing in Him may make” [Packer, 159]. We don’t know that God is complex enough to be both good and severe at the same time.
How has this happened? We can’t grapple with a “good” God and a “severe” God. We have to make Him one or the other. Guess which characteristic most Christians prefer today?
The “good” God.
Packer goes so far as to say that contemporary Christians feel like God is a “celestial Santa Claus” and this Santa Claus theology cannot cope with the idea of evil. “How on earth have people got into such a muddle? What lies at the root of their confusion?
He has four answers.
First of all, we see Christians who operate on “private religious hunches.” God’s Word is available but to read it is too difficult or too time-consuming. Once people have their hunches in place, it is too hard to unlearn them. Packer also points to the problem some people have with pride. It is ok to base my knowledge on how I feel. It is humbling to open God’s Word and find out that one’s ideas are not confirmed.
Secondly, many modern people think all religion is equal, and they draw many of their ideas from “pagan” sources instead of Christian sources. “We have to try to show people the uniqueness and finality of the Lord Jesus Christ, God’s last word to man” [Packer, 159]. It is so hard to confront people with “Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few” [Matthew 7]. Most avoid that Scripture because we fear that it may be offensive to nonbelievers, but it really says that Jesus is the way; every faith on the face of the earth in not equal to Christianity. One who desires to be a Christian should consult God’s Word.
Next is the problem that culture normalizes sinfulness. Let’s be truthful, as people act out and their behavior becomes more acceptable due to large numbers of copy cats, celebrity actors or some kind or popular trend, people cease to recognize the reality of their own sinfulness. Some forms of sinfulness become accepted and no one wants to be confronted by the idea that God does not appreciate such behavior. It is our task as believers to introduce people to the fact that God can be severe in His judgement of sin. This is not popular and to be honest, Packer is right when he says that it can cause “enmity against God.”
Last is the habit people have of disassociation. We are back to the idea I expressed above about consistency. We just don’t like disparate ideas when it comes to humans and we don’t like disparate ideas about God. He is either one way of the other. He can’t be both good and severe. As humans, why do we stereotype? Before you say, “I don’t,” let’s be honest; everyone does. It is a short cut to making conclusions about people. People are complex and we never take the time we need to know someone. We jump to conclusions based on scant evidence. It takes less thought and it certainly takes less time.
God is complex; much more complex than we can ever understand. Our finite minds can’t comprehend His nature and if we believe in a God who is always “good” and never “severe,” we don’t have to worry about the consequences of sin. Packer writes “On the basis of Santa Claus theology, sins create no problem, and atonement becomes needless” . It is no different for those who disregard God’s commandments than those who keep them. “Trembling at His word gets written off as impossibly old fashioned—‘Victorian,’ ‘Puritan’ and ‘sub-Christian’ .
“Behold therefore the goodness and severity of God.”
Yes, it is from our Bibles, from Romans 11: 22.
God is good…
God is also severe…