The Holy God of Love

My guess is that if an author writes a book centered on the cross of Christ, a large portion of that book must address the idea of atonement or the reparation for a wrong or injury; in the Christian faith, atonement refers to expiation for sin.  In simple terms, something wrong has been done and someone has to pay for that wrong.

In Chapter Five of his book*, John Stott spends most of his chapter grappling with the idea of God being satisfied with the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross.  “Satisfied” seems to be a strange word because it means that God is pleased, God is content with Jesus going to the cross. 

In recent posts, I have discussed the purposes for Jesus’ sacrifice: to disarm the devil, to meet the constraints of law, to honor God and finally Jesus went to the cross to satisfy God Himself.

As we close Chapter Five, Stott sets the stage for Chapter Six with a discussion of “The Holy Love of God.”   How can God be a God of love, punishing man and loving man at the same time?

New Testament Christians may struggle with the necessary sacrifice of Jesus for our own well-being, because we are ignoring the God of the Old Testament.  The fact that Jesus had to undergo such a cruel end to His life, is this not inconsistent with the message of love in New Testament Scripture?

It all depends on how you define “holy love”.

The Old Testament is full of God’s love for man, but it is also full of examples of God’s wrath.  How could God destroy almost everything in a worldwide flood?  How could God destroy the city of Sodom?  How could God destroy the Egyptians in the Red Sea?  God rained down death on His own people as they refused to follow His law, allowing the Assyrians to defeat the ten tribes of Israel in Second Kings 17:1-23 and the Babylonian destruction of the two tribes of Judah in Second  Kings 24:1-4.

Is this the “holy love” of God?

Stott says it is.  Maybe the only way for humans to begin to understand God’s behavior is to turn to the experience that most parents have as they raise their children.  Personally, I have a son and I have always loved him but he has not always made me happy.  In fact he has done things in the past that had to be punished. When punishment had to be inflicted, I did not enjoy that; in fact, I hated it but it had to be done to teach that certain behaviors are just not acceptable.  I still loved my son as I punished him; I was dealing with conflicting emotions.

As Stott describes this parallel, he cautions readers about going too far in trying to understand God’s holy love through human understanding.

In the Old Testament, God refers to Israel as His child, His son.  One can turn to Hosea Chapter 11 and see that God felt a need to punish “His Son” for straying away from His commandments. Even though He refers to Himself as a compassionate and gracious God, He does not leave the guilty Israelites unpunished. 

Can God be kind and stern at the same time?  If one studies the Old Testament, those conflicting ideas are common.  Stott cites Emil Brunner about the New Testament attitude that emerges in modern times, the idea that a Holy God must always be a loving God.  Old Testament “Divine Holiness has been swallowed up in that of the Divine love…[the] twofold nature of holiness and love is being replaced with a unilateral, monistic idea of God.”**   Divine holiness had no problem with mercy and wrath in “one synthetic conception.”  God can be a righteous God, a God capable of exacting penalties but also a God with “transcendent love.”

Stott writes that the duality of God should never be thought of as a problem, for “God is not at odds with Himself, however much it may appear to us that He is” [Stott, 131].  For God to be at odds with Himself, He would not be a God of peace; He would be a God in turmoil.  “We may find it difficult to hold in our minds simultaneously the image of God as the Judge who must punish evil-doers and of the Lover who must find a way to forgive them…but God is both at the same time.”  John Calvin writing on this topic is bold in his words: “in a marvelous and divine way He loved us even when He hated us.”

We are left with the problem of understanding a God who is satisfied by what happened on the cross.  God needed to be “satisfied” with the exacting of punishment before He was prepared to forgive man, Jesus stepping into our place on the cross.

For us to understand the idea of a satisfied God, we must get away from the duality of God as indulgent or God as harsh.  We must get away from the idea that God loves us so much that He is willing to compromise His holiness.  We must get away from the idea that God is harsh and vindictive and wants to crush and destroy us. 

God is more complex than all that.  He is more complex than we can comprehend.  Just because we like to see ourselves and others as consistent in our behavior does not mean that we can limit God by that need.  Too often we tend to see people as good or bad, right or wrong, or loving or hating.  God cannot be put in that box.  Stott writes “How then can God express His holiness without consuming us and His love without condoning our sins?  How can God satisfy His holy love?  How can He save us and satisfy Himself simultaneously?”

On June 9th, I posted “Stott’s Statement on Satisfaction and Substitution.”  In that statement, Stott explains the view that the only way for God to be satisfied is for Him to sacrifice Himself for us.  Chapter Five has been about God’s satisfaction from Jesus’ sacrifice.  When we return to The Cross of Christ, Chapter Six will be concerned with an indepth discussion of “The Self Substitution of God.”

Stott cites theologian P.T. Forsyth*** who writes of the holy love of God, saying that the simple idea of human love does not apply.  “Christ’s first concern and revelation was not simply the forgiving love of God, but the holiness of such love…If we spoke less about God’s love and more about His holiness, more about His judgement, we should say much more when we did speak of His love…Without a Holy God, there would be no problem of atonement.  It is the holiness of God’s love that necessitates the atoning cross” [Forsyth in Stott, 132].

The contentment of God with the sacrifice of His Son is much more complex than we can ever understand.  The substitution of Himself for us to save us is more complex than we can ever understand.

Stott begins Chapter Five with the words “No two words in the theological vocabulary of the cross arouse more criticism than satisfaction and substitution

Completing his exhaustive discussion of all the ways we understand God’s satisfaction, now Chapter Six will deal with substitution…self-substitution. ****

*The Cross of Christ

**Emil Brunner, Man in Revolt

***P.T. Forsyth, Work in Christ

****The next series of post will deal with “The Resurrection of Christ” from Stott’s book Basic Christianity. I will return to Chapter Six of The Cross of Christ after that discussion.

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