Knowing All of God
by Syd Brestel
The best way to photograph a diamond is to present it on a black background. Under brilliant light, the vibrancy of the diamond is amazing.
Professionals use terms like brilliance, sparkle, and even fire to describe the radiance of this precious stone. I believe this is also true with God’s softer attributes of grace, kindness, and mercy. We can’t fully appreciate these more welcoming attributes without first considering God’s more stern attributes.
Think about this for a moment. What adjective do we most often associate with God’s grace? John Newton described it, “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me.”
The more Newton considered his own sinfulness in stark contrast to God’s blazing holiness, the more he found grace to be simply amazing.
Charles Wesley used the same term. Contemplating the death of Christ in his place, he wrote, “Amazing love, how can it be that Thou, my God, shouldst die for me!”
“Amazing” has become a somewhat threadbare word these days. It’s been used in our contemporary culture to describe so many things—from dish soap to breakfast cereal—that it no longer says much of anything. But what happens when you encounter something that truly soars above every attempt to wrap it in words? What term do you use? Wondrous. Shocking. Startling. Stunning. Jaw-dropping. When you begin to describe the holiness of God that demanded a death sentence on sinners, followed by the fact that Jesus, the Son of God Himself, died in our place to pay the penalty for us, it’s hard to put that demonstration of love and grace into language.
When I hear someone say, “I love Jesus, but I don’t like the angry God in the Old Testament,” I cringe. Don’t they know it is the same person in both testaments? The older testament introduces us to the God who rained down fire and brimstone on Sodom and also reveals the God who does justice and whose love is loyal and never changing.
I wonder if these critics of the older testament have considered the God who encouraged unfaithful Israel, “Can a woman forget her nursing child, that she should have no compassion on the son of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you. Behold, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands” (Isa. 49:15–16, emphasis mine). What a graphic description of God’s love and faithfulness.
God also invited Israel to “Come now, let us reason together, says the Lord: though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool” (Isa. 1:18). The same God, in Matthew 11:28, has invited anyone who is “weary and burdened” (NIV) to come to Him for rest. He has also sent invitations to you and me in John 7:37: “If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink.”
Why am I considering God’s severity before His kindness? Because this is the side of His nature and character that our contemporary culture most wants to paper over or ignore. It’s easier and more pleasant to bask in His grace and kindness. But in so doing, we may forget that the grace God demonstrated when Jesus died on the cross came at a terrible price—demanded by white-hot holiness.
The word translated severity in Romans 11:22 in the ESV and the NASB is translated as sternness in the NIV. Sternness sounds a little less threatening than severity, doesn’t it? (I would rather have a stern policeman stop me on the highway than a severe one!) The Message paraphrase makes the contrast between God’s kindness and severity even more graphic: “Make sure you stay alert to these qualities of gentle kindness and ruthless severity that exist side by side in God—ruthless with the deadwood, gentle with the grafted shoot” (emphasis mine).
“Deadwood” is a reference to the fruitless or sterile branches of an olive tree that have been cut off so that branches from a wild olive tree could be grafted into the stump of the old fruitless tree.
A note of caution is necessary in response to Eugene Peterson’s use of the adjective ruthless. I believe Peterson chose the word to emphasize the extreme severity of God’s response to Israel’s disobedience, but technically the English word ruthless suggests cruelty or acting without mercy. That, of course, is not true of our God, who shows mercy even in His discipline. He is not cruel, but he is severe.
For example, in Romans 9–11 Paul addresses God’s relationship with Israel after they had rejected their Messiah, Jesus. Had they crossed the line of no return, or would they get another “get out of jail free” card because they are Abraham’s descendants? Were they exempt from God’s judgment because they were still offering sacrifices at the temple?
The answer is a resounding no.
No amount of religious activities could atone for their grievous sin. They were cut off like a dead branch.
For a moment, let’s consider the immediate context surrounding Romans 11:22. Romans 8 concludes with assurance that those who have been justified (pronounced righteous in Jesus Christ) cannot be severed from God’s loyal love.
No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Rom. 8:37–39)
That certainly sounds secure, doesn’t it? Nothing, absolutely nothing, can sever those who are in Christ Jesus from God’s love. That’s kindness.
An excerpt from God in His Own Image: Loving God for Who He Is Not Who We Want Him to Be by Syd Brestel (Moody Publishers, May 2019).
Syd Brestel (B.A. Moody Bible Institute; M.A., Western Seminary) is a retired pastor who served a number of congregations for nearly fifty years. He has taught biblical classes at Kilns College in Bend, OR and is passionate about creating opportunities for lay people to receive biblical and theological training. He has ministered in several countries including India, Pakistan, UAE, Uganda, and Ireland. God has given him a passion to proclaim and defend both His grace and His holiness and wrath.
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