Listening to our culture converse about God is a perplexing experience. All the voices I hear – preachers, teachers, authors, bloggers, Catholics, Protestants, Baptists, Episcopalians, coworkers, family members, friends – insist they’re referring to the Judeo-Christian God of the Bible, yet their descriptions of what he’s like differ drastically. Like . . . really drastically.
Some whisper softly of a god who loves us so deeply that our sin doesn’t even register on his radar. “Every person is his dearest and most cherished child,” they say, “and he loves them so much he can’t help to overlook their mistakes and hiccups in life!” Sure, he wishes we would do better sometimes, but he knows we’re not perfect and doesn’t expect us to be. This version of god doesn’t seem to care too much about our sins as he easily forgives them all without batting a divine eyelash. As long as we believe he’s real and try our best to be decent people, all is well in his book.
Others speak harshly of a god who, yes, saves sinners – but only sinners who get their crap together and maintain squeaky clean, moral lifestyles. They tell of a rigid, justice-only sort of god has zero patience toward imperfect people and explodes in anger over every sinful stumble. These folks love to hit the street corners with their signs about the damnation of god that’s surely coming for homosexuals, whores, liars, and cheats. Their biblical vocabulary seems to be restricted to three words: sin, repentance, and judgment. This god they portray seems totally unapproachable and as if he could really care less about us.
Christians who are familiar with the Bible probably don’t immediately resonate with either one of these extreme versions of God. We would probably respond (almost robotically), “No, God is both merciful and wrathful. He is both loving and just.” But I think if we stopped and humbly examined our personal perspectives of God – perhaps by looking at the way we pray or how our hearts react to our personal sin– we would discover that, despite our biblical knowledge, we all have a propensity to envision him as a lovey-dovey, fluffy god or as frown-faced, irritable god.
I’ll admit this is my experience, anyway.
I naturally have a hard time embracing God’s love for me. I have a sensitive conscience and find it difficult to get my mind off of my many sins and failures. I think because of my inclination to gaze upon my sins, I envision a version of God who just tolerates me, but doesn’t actually love or enjoy me. But I have friends who are exactly the opposite. Their sins tend not to bother them quite as much – or really, at all – and they seem to be able to effortlessly believe they are forever safe in God’s loving embrace. They’re never really in anguish, even momentarily, over their failures.
But despite whatever we may be predisposed to feel or think, what is God really like? If there was ever an all important, life-altering question for us to ask ourselves, this is it. Who we believe God to be affects every facet of our lives. But this isn’t a question that can be answered out of personal preference. We don’t have authority or permission to decide what shade we like God painted in the best and then just live our lives as if our preferred version of him is correct. God precedes us. He made us; we do not get to make him. He is who he is forever and always, and we must submit to his true, unchangeable nature as it is revealed in the written Word of God.
God hates our sins with infinite intensity. The Bible is maximally clear that God does not minimize sin, but that he is a God of vengeance (Hebrews 10:30; Romans 12:19) who by no means will clear the guilty (Exodus 34: 7; Numbers 14:18; Nahum 1:3). This is really good news. It means that no evil shall go unpunished. But it’s also really bad news because we are all evildoers and guilty of sin. The judgment of God does not fall only on baby murderers, rapists, and leaders of genocide. The judgment of God falls on all sin. The slightest of sins provokes a righteous anger in the heart of the holy, triune God that would demolish us if he unleashed even a drop of it.
God is overwhelmingly merciful toward sinners. However, the Bible is also jam-packed with the truth that God’s heart overflows with mercy and compassion. The writer of Lamentations says, “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; his mercies never come to an end.” All throughout the Scriptures you see God dealing gracefully with men and women who deserve nothing but his judgment. King David slept with a wife not his own, impregnated her, then had her husband killed. Though he suffered temporal consequences for his sin, God said to him, “The Lord has put away your sin. You shall not die.”
How could God, being the sin-hating God he is, put the sins of people like David – and you and me – away? How can he forgive sinners without compromising his justice and righteousness?
The answer is Jesus. Only Jesus.
In the person of His Son, God took on human flesh, lived a perfectly righteous life – unlike King David and you and me – and then drank the cup of God’s burning wrath for our sins on the Cross. Through this beautiful and painful substitutionary work of Jesus, God is able to pardon our transgressions without compromising his justice. Our sins have been atoned for. Someone has endured God’s wrath for them. It just wasn’t us – it was God. In the paraphrased words of Andrew Burkhart (I would recommend you listen to his recent and excellent sermon on the biblical tension between God’s mercy and wrath), “God would rather suffer under his own wrath for our sin than to see us suffer it.”
This is a glorious truth. I thank God for it and without it I’d have no hope. But, I still tend to struggle in how to rightly live within it on this side of glory.
As a born again Christian, how should I handle the sins I still commit? Should I follow my natural tendency and carry my guilt around until I feel I’ve been “good enough” for “long enough” to be released from my troubled conscience? Or should I do as some of my friends and treat my sins flippantly because “God forgives”? No, and no. Both of these thought processes are basically ignoring, probably unintentionally, one massive and vital reality: the Cross of Jesus Christ. The guilt-ridden Christian gazes so continuously upon their sin that they neglect to look to the Cross – where their monstrous sin debt was paid in full by the precious blood of God’s Son. And the Christian who barely feels a smidgen of remorse or pain over their sin also neglects to look to the Cross – where the severity and heinousness of their transgression is vividly portrayed.
Christians, if we take our eyes off of God’s slain and resurrected Son, we will end up viewing God and handling our personal sin so wrongly. When we fall, we must look to the Cross and feel the weight of our failure. And when we fall, we must look to the Cross, see the shed blood, and know that payment for every one of our sins has been submitted and accepted. If you struggle to feel remorse over sin, or if you struggle to escape continual and debilitating guilt over sin, look to the Cross of Jesus! See the severity of your sin . . . and see the depth and richness of God’s love for you.