D.A. Carson has written a helpful book, The Difficult Doctrine of the Love of God. Kristi gave me this book when we were dating, actually. It was our six month anniversary. Now, twenty years and about two weeks later, I commend it to you.
The occasion for this recommendation is, of course, Sunday’s sermon from Leviticus 20, “What can we learn from the Bible’s shocking judgments?” This chapter brought us up close and personal with some of the Bible’s most shocking judgments. For example, stoning for child sacrifice (which perhaps sounds reasonable) but also the death penalty for adultery (which may give us pause). There is an important biblical theological context for these commands. Remember that Adam was banished from the garden for his sin. These laws concern Israel’s life when she enters the land of promise, a new Eden. In short, the comfort we can take in Leviticus 20 is that there won’t be any such sin in the new creation. Where does that leave us, sinners that we are? Trusting only and wholly in the perfect advocate, Jesus Christ the righteous, our propitiation for sin (1Jn. 2:1–3).
Chapters like this raise tensions not only in the question of how any of us can be saved, but a tension in the question of who God is in himself. Is he wrathful or is he loving? Aren’t these descriptors mutually exclusive? Is this just one of those mysteries we have to accept? Yes, we must accept it if that’s the Bible’s portrait of our God, a God beyond all comprehension. But that doesn’t mean we are left without any sense of coherence in our picture of God.
For help with that question, Don Carson has served us well on pages 67–70 in his chapter, “God’s Love and God’s Wrath.”
Carson on the difference between wrath and love:
“Wrath, unlike love, is not one of the intrinsic perfections of God. Rather, it is a function of God’s holiness against sin. Where there is no sin, there is no wrath-but there will always be love in God. Where God in His holiness confronts His image-bearers in their rebellion, there must be wrath, or God is not the jealous God He claims to be, and His holiness is impugned. The price of diluting God’s wrath is diminishing God’s holiness.”
He continues, on the compatibility of God’s wrath and his love focused on the same person:
“God’s wrath is not an implacable, blind rage. However emotional it may be, it is an entirely reasonable and willed response to offenses against His holiness. But His love…wells up amidst His perfections and is not generated by the loveliness of the loved. Thus there is nothing intrinsically impossible about wrath and love being directed toward the same individual or people at the same time. God in His perfections must be wrathful against His rebel image-breakers, for they have offended Him; God in His perfections must be loving toward His rebel image-bearers, for He is that kind of God.”
How God’s love redirects God’s wrath to save sinners:
“Both God’s love and God’s wrath are ratcheted up in the move from the old covenant to the new, from the Old Testament to the New. These themes barrel along through redemptive history, unresolved, until they come to a resounding climax – in the cross.”
As Carson has asked elsewhere, “Do you wish to see God’s love? Look at the cross. Do you wish to see God’s wrath? Look at the cross.”As with so many other doctrines, the theological tension leads to and finds resolution in the person and work of Christ.