Love, Justice, and Wrath

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.
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