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Francis Schaeffer once encouraged us to imagine walking down the street and encountering a young thug beating up an elderly woman. He is striking her again and again as she clings to the purse he is attempting to snatch. Schaeffer asks, “What does it mean to love my neighbor in that situation?” Unquestionably, loving my neighbor means that I use the force (righteous wrath) necessary to subdue the (evil) thug and rescue (love) the (innocent) elderly woman. Love and justice, goodness and holiness, grace and wrath are not opposites. They are complementary. Ultimately, they are interdependent. Love without justice is mere sentimentalism. Justice without love is sheer vindictiveness. In God, however, “Steadfast love and faithfulness meet; righteousness and peace kiss each other” (Ps. 85:10). Love seeks justice for those loved. Justice protects, avenges, and vindicates those loved. The cross of Christ is the perfect expression of both the love of God who saves unworthy sinners and the justice of God who requires that a just price for salvation be paid.

the simplicity of god

There is a perfect harmony between what we perceive to be tensions between the various attributes of God. Strictly speaking, there are not multiple attributes but one glorious divine essence. The classic theologians often placed divine simplicity first in their discussion of the attributes, arguing that a right understanding of simplicity is essential for a right understanding of all the attributes. God is simple. He is spirit, undivided, singular, uncompounded. He is One, without body, parts, or passions. When we study God’s attributes, we are not contemplating different parts of God. We consider each attribute separately because of the limitations of our reasoning powers. “There are not in God many attributes, but one only,” declared the Puritan Lewis Bayly, voicing the view of classic theism, “which is nothing but the Divine Essence itself, but whatsoever you call it.” God’s attributa divina is inseparable from His essentia Dei.

Given the essential unity of the divine attributes, what can we say about the relationship between what we perceive to be the softer and harsher expressions of His character, between love and wrath, between mercy and justice? It may be helpful to answer our question by focusing on love, the attribute around which discussion and controversy swirl. “God is love,” the Bible and popular opinion agree. How, then, are we to understand His justice and wrath?

There are not multiple attributes but one glorious divine essence.
more than love

First, God is love, yet more than love. Love is treated by the older theologians as a subset of goodness. God’s goodness—what Stephen Charnock termed “the captain attribute”—is the genus of which love, grace, mercy, kindness, and patience are the species. This method of classification itself implies that “God is love” doesn’t mean that God is love to the exclusion of His other attributes (1 John 4:8). The Apostle John does not write that “love is God.” The equation cannot be reversed. The Bible also says that God is “light” (1 John 1:5), and that God is a “consuming fire” (Heb. 12:29). The same grammatical construction is used in all these cases. The God who is love is also “faithful” and “just,” John also tells us (1 John 1:9). “Though God is infinitely benevolent,” says the nineteenth-century Presbyterian J.W. Alexander, “infinite benevolence is not all of God.” God’s love is a just love, and His justice is a loving justice. We must not allow one attribute to overwhelm and nullify the rest. Charles Spurgeon puts it this way: “God is . . . as severely just as if He had no love, and yet as intensely loving as if He had no justice.”

define love

Second, the Bible must be allowed to define love. Not infrequently, the love of God has been understood in such a way as to deny God’s moral qualities. “I believe in a God of love,” someone might say as he goes on to abolish judgment day and quench the fires of hell. Moral categories are tossed out altogether in the name of love. “A loving God would never,” the well-meaning assertion begins, and then follows a list of lifestyle distinctions or moral demands that God, it is alleged, would never make. He would never condemn me, or want me to be unhappy, or disapprove of my conduct, or challenge my chosen identity. Why wouldn’t He? Because, so the claim goes, He is only and always accepting of everyone and everything. God has been redefined by an amorphous understanding of love, notions untethered from holiness and Scripture itself. When the Apostles say that God is love, they mean that He is agap, not ers, caritas, not amor—self-giving and sacrificial love, not romantic love, not erotic love, not warmly sentimental love, and not uncritically accepting love. God’s love is distinguishing, correcting, and righteous love.

The Bible reveals a God who is both good and just. He is “merciful and gracious,” and yet He “will by no means clear the guilty” (Ex. 34:6–7). “Behold . . . the goodness and severity of God,” the Apostle Paul says (Rom. 11:22, KJV, emphasis added). If He were not just, He would not be good. If He were to wink at sin, if He were to ignore evil, if He were to tolerate injustice, if He were to leave the innocent at the mercy of the ungodly—unrescued, unavenged, unvindicated, and eternally undistinguished from the wicked, sharing the same space, the same destiny, the same rewards, and the same punishments—God would not be good or kind or righteous or holy or just. “His love is not and cannot be blind and indulgent,” Ian Hamilton says, “just as His justice and holiness are not, and cannot be, cold and arbitrary.” Again, love requires justice.

inclined to love

Third, God is inclined to love. While we should not allow love to overshadow all of God’s other attributes, yet we can say that love, and with love His goodness more generally, in a sense, is more “natural” to God than is His wrath. He prefers to love over against the more severe expressions of His character. We are stretching language at this point because God’s attributes, as noted, are a harmonious unity. Love and justice are not warring against each other in God’s nature or consciousness. Yet the Bible teaches us that God “delights” in “unchanging” (NASB) or “steadfast love” (Hebrew hesed), while it never teaches that He delights to show wrath (Mic. 7:18). “God is more inclinable to mercy than wrath,” Thomas Watson says. “Acts of severity are rather forced from Him.” The Bible teaches that “he does not afflict willingly,” yet He does willingly and eagerly love (Lam. 3:33, NKJV; see Deut. 7:6–7). He is “slow to anger” while He is quick to forgive and “abound[s] in steadfast love” (Ps. 103:8; see Ex. 34:6). Isaiah calls God’s judgment His “strange work” (Isa. 28:21, KJV) or what the theologians called His opera aliena, His alien task. He is a reluctant judge. God is more inclined to love—to show kindness, grace, and mercy—than He is to show anger, wrath, and judgment. The expression of love is more revealing of His inclination or the direction of His nature, more a manifestation of His preference, than is the expression of His wrath. Indeed, God’s love, Puritan William Gurnall says, “sets all his other attributes on work.”

Our articulation of God’s attributes should always be expressed with humility. However much we have voiced, there is always more to be said. The finite cannot know the infinite comprehensively or exhaustively. Yet we can know God truly, and we can speak where the Bible speaks, as it reveals a God who is both love and just, the monument to which we have at Calvary.



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From the May 2022 Issue
May 2022 Issue