You know, it can be kind of a scary thing to realize that you are a completely different person from who you used to be. On the other hand, sometimes it can be a good thing. Personally, when I look back on who I was even just five years ago, I’m grateful for the significant changes.
Some people seem to have a similar approach to the God of the Bible. They like the God of the New Testament, the one full of love and forgiveness in the person of Jesus Christ. They are not such a fan, however, of the God of the Old Testament. They see that God as wrathful, capricious and unforgiving. God appears to have gone through some significant positive personality changes over time, at least from the reports of those who see the Bible this way.
A few weeks ago, we began a series exploring the genuine questions many people have about the Old Testament. We discussed the accusation that God committed genocide by commanding Israel to kill other nations and saw instead that God reclaimed the lives of evil people who were abusing them and causing harm to others. Today, we turn our attention to the claim that the God of the Bible has multiple personalities between the Old and New Testaments.
The God of the Old Testament definitely gets a bad rap, and I think I know why. It’s because a lot of people die in the accounts chronicling Israel’s history, and this is all that people really know. Most people have not actually read the Bible for themselves, much less with an earnest desire to understand it. Everyone has heard from others that there’s a whole lot of God killing people going on in the Old Testament, and that doesn’t sound a whole lot like a loving God to them. But do the facts actually line up with this assessment?
In Exodus 34, God describes his own character:
“The Lord, the Lord God, compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in lovingkindness and truth; who keeps lovingkindness for thousands, who forgives iniquity, transgression and sin; yet He will by no means leave the guilty unpunished, visiting the iniquity of fathers on the children and on the grandchildren to the third and fourth generations.”Exodus 34:6-7 (NASB)
It is interesting to me that essentially the first three-quarters of that description get glossed over in the minds of many people. God is described here as compassionate, gracious, slow to anger, abounding in lovingkindness and truth, and forgiving. He is also described as morally just in not leaving the guilty unpunished, which is hardly a negative quality.  But is this portrait of God consistent with the rest of the Old Testament? Yes, it actually is.
Did you know that the word “lovingkindness,” as it is translated from Hebrew, appears about 180 times in the Old Testament to describe God’s character? The word “compassion” is used to describe God about 85 times in the Old Testament. God is called “gracious” nearly 60 times. He is called “slow to anger” 13 times spread throughout the Old Testament. Having said all that, God’s wrath is also referred to about 140 times, which is what people generally complain about. So how does God’s wrath fit in with all of these descriptions of lovingkindness, compassion and being “slow to anger?”
I heard a speaker recently talk about how some people want God to be merciful, but not morally just while others want God to be just, but not merciful. It’s an interesting paradox. See, mercy (not getting what you deserve) and justice (getting what you deserve) are mutually exclusive most of the time. In order for God to be merciful and forgiving, he cannot be fully just because he is then overlooking the crimes someone has committed so that they need not pay for them. On the other hand, in order for God to be just, he cannot be merciful and forgiving because he is then punishing the crimes someone has committed in full. And yet, in the attributes we saw above, God is described as both merciful and just. How is this possible?
In reality, when I read the Old Testament, I read about a God who earnestly and unconditionally loves people, who gives them laws and moral commands to follow out of love for them (“Do not murder” seems like a good example), who repeatedly forgives them and overlooks their crimes when they turn back to him (over and over again), and who uses punishment (justice) often as a last resort, though he clearly is not obligated to do so. For example, we see Israel continually rebelling against God’s care for them in a myriad of ways, and yet God continually forgives and restores them. We see all kinds of different people from all kinds of other nations brought into God’s care for them throughout the Old Testament as they turn from following their own ways and choose God’s instead. We even see Israel’s brutal enemy Assyria completely forgiven for their wickedness (at least in the capital of Nineveh) because they turn from their evil ways and seek God’s mercy. Even Jonah, the very man who God sends to tell Nineveh to repent (who goes very reluctantly by the way), complains that God is “a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abundant in lovingkindness, and one who relents concerning calamity” (Jonah 4:2 NASB). That’s an intriguing complaint. God is too loving and merciful? Doesn’t sound very capricious or unforgiving to me. Maybe the real reason why we don’t like the God of the Old Testament is because we just don’t like the idea of being punished at all?
Interestingly, if we carry our analysis of God’s attributes into the shorter New Testament, we find that he is associated with love or is even the definition of love (“God is love”) around 80 times. We also find God’s wrath referred to in the New Testament around 35 times, which is far from insignificant. While the God of the Old Testament is far more merciful, loving and forgiving than most people realize, the God of the New Testament is still morally just in the end, not leaving the guilty unpunished.
The difference is this: God’s forgiving nature in the Old Testament is justified by his sacrificial death on the cross on our behalf in the New Testament in the person of Jesus Christ. God, in both his love and justice, found a way to satisfy both of these things in a single act. He took the punishment that we all deserve upon himself, simultaneously justifying his forgiveness now and in the past and providing a catalyst for his mercy so that we need not subject ourselves to his wrath. The God of the Bible is both merciful and just. Neither of these qualities outweighs the other; they are in perfect balance. And yet, he provides a way for mercy to win the day.
“But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. Much more then, having now been justified by His blood, we shall be saved from the wrath of God through Him.”Romans 5:8-9 (NASB)
What has informed your perception of the God of the Bible?
 Another objection here may be that it is not “fair” for God to punish the children and grandchildren of the guilty for sins which they did not commit. We will have to deal with this objection in a future post.