Do you ever read something and find yourself actually nodding your head in agreement, or responding to the author out loud? My friends and family will be relieved to know that I very rarely do this. Last night, however, I would have responded out loud when I read James Bryan Smith’s chapter “God is Holy” in The Good and Beautiful God. The only reason I didn’t was because I was reading the book while giving an exam and my students would have shushed me.
As I read this chapter, I found myself wishing that I could have every single Christian read it. The piece is excellent, not because it is new or edgy, but because it states basic Christian truth with profound clarity.
In the previous chapter, “God Is Love,” Smith emphasizes the scandal of God’s grace. God loves sinners “as they are, and not as they should be” (98). He further argues that it is not sin but self-righteousness that separates us from God (102). The chapter does a great job of emphasizing the good news that God’s love for us is constant, whether we are worthy of it or not. And this applies to everyone. (By the way, I highly recommend the entire book, as well as the other two books in the series.)
In the next chapter, Smith addresses a misunderstanding of the truth that God is love, and loves sinners with reckless extravagance: “God does not care about our sin” (116). Smith writes, “In our day you are just as likely to hear a person tell you that their god is a cosmic, benevolent spirit who never judges, does not punish sin and sends no one to hell. This ‘teddy bear’ god has become a very fashionable alternative to the wrathful god of days gone by” (116). The problem is that “the cushy, fuzzy god is neither biblical nor truly loving.” Here, Smith cites H. Richard Niebuhr’s well-worn phrase from The Kingdom of God in America, “A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a Cross.”
Smith then points to some of the inadequate theologies that follow from a desire to avoid a wrathful God. I will let one of the most piercing passages in the chapter speak for itself:
Albrecht Ritschl (1822-1889) did not like the notion of a wrathful God. Ritschl concluded, ‘The concept of God’s wrath has no religious value for the Christian.’ So he reinterpreted the meaning of wrath. Wrath is the logical consequence of God’s absence, and not God’s attitude toward sin and evil. A lot of people liked this because it depicted a god who is above getting angry. This passive-aggressive god just gets quiet. (119)
We need God to care about sin and evil. If God simply becomes distant, then we are hopeless when faced with the enormity of sin and death.
The basic argument that Smith makes is that our understanding of both God’s love and God’s wrath are primarily derived from the most emotive and irrational connotations that these words have. For Smith, God’s love is more like a parent’s love toward a child than a teenager’s infatuation with a peer. And “in the same way that God’s love is not a silly, sappy feeling but rather a consistent desire for the good of his people, so also the wrath of God is not a crazed rage but rather a consistent opposition to sin and evil” (120).
Smith repeatedly emphasizes in the chapter that God is both “kind and severe. We cannot have one without the other” and that this is “very good news” (118). It is good news because God loves us so much that he is completely opposed to anything that harms God’s beloved people. God loves us without condition, but hates sin because sin threatens and eventually brings our destruction.
He makes an important distinction between God’s love and wrath. “Wrath is not something that God is but something that God does. While it is correct to say that God is holy, it is not correct to say that God is wrathful… Holiness is God’s essence… Wrath is what humans experience when they reject God. And it is a necessary part of God’s love” (123).
Smith suggests that we should not want a god who says, “‘It’s cool. Don’t sweat it. Everybody sins, just do it without the guilt, dude. Guilt stinks. Just have a good time!’ This god does not love me. Being soft on sin is not loving, because sin destroys. I want a God who hates anything that hurts me. Hate is a strong word, but a good one. Because the true God not only hates what destroys me (sin and alientation) but also has taken steps to destroy my destroyer, I love him” (125).
Finally, Smith brings his conversation back to the beginning – God’s unconditional love for us. He considered a conversation he had with a woman who heard a sermon he preached on God’s scandalous, unconditional love for us exactly as we are right now and she understood his sermon to mean that sin did not matter and she could simply continuing sinning without feeling guilty. Here is how Smith concludes the chapter:
It occurred to me that perhaps she needed first to hear that she was loved unconditionally before she could address the issue of sin. This is counterintuitive, but I believe it is right. We assume that wrath comes before grace, but that is not the biblical way. God’s first and last word is always grace. Until we have been assured that we are loved and forgiven, it is impossible to address our sinfulness correctly. We will operate out of our own resources, trying to get God to like us by our own efforts to change. God’s first word is always grace, as Barth said. Only then can we begin to understand God’s holiness, and ours. (127)
This is the gospel! Our efforts to change are not enough and can never secure God’s approval. But the good news is that God already loves us. God already offers us forgiveness, healing, and redemption.
Appreciating the relationship between God’s unconditional love and God’s utter opposition to all that harms us is essential for all Christians. It seems to me that United Methodists are currently failing to adequately maintain both sides of this good news. It is not sufficiently Christian to be in favor of either a god whose inclusive love is incapable of excluding sin and evil or a god whose holiness leads people to live in shame.
I’m not sure that these actually represent the positions of any significant groups of United Methodists. Rather, this is how United Methodists (and many other Christians) misrepresent each other’s positions. One side accuses the other of failing to offer the world a God whose love is radically inclusive of all people and is not full of anger and judgment. Another side accuses the other of failing to offer the world a God who has standards for right and wrong actions and attitudes.
I do occasionally hear these views expressed by students and pastors. Much more frequently I hear people simply talking past each other. In general, I think if you pressed people on both sides of the theological spectrum, you would find that most believe that God loves creation, and particularly those created in the divine image, with reckless abandon, perfectly. And I think most people believe that God wants to free us from the things that bind us to the ways of sin and death. The disagreement is about whether particular actions, ideas, or attitudes constitute sin.
The problem is not that one side is in favor of sin in order to be more inclusive, while the other side is in favor of exclusion in order to protect God’s holiness or our own. The problem is that neither side does a good enough job of emphasizing both God’s radical love for broken, hurting, and sinful people as well as God’s complete rejection and opposition to sin and evil, whether it is expressed through outward actions or inner dispositions, or individually or structurally.
1 John, to give an example from Scripture, only makes sense when we hold both God’s inclusive love together with God’s complete rejection of sin:
This is the message we have heard from him and declare to you: God is light; in him there is no darkness at all. If we claim to have fellowship with him and yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not live out the truth. But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin.
If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word is not in us.
My dear children, I write this to you so that you will not sin. But if anybody does sin, we have an advocate with the Father – Jesus Christ, the Righteous One. He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world.
– 1 John 1:5-2:2
God’s love towards each one of us is unconditional. Have you allowed that truth to sink into every corner or your life, or are you still trying to clean yourself up for God, to earn your acceptance? Are you willing to be desperately dependent on God’s grace and not your own goodness?
God hates sin because God loves us. Are you allowing God’s grace to free you from everything that keeps you from the life for which you were created? Will you allow the amazing grace of God to forgive you of the ways you have sinned and are sinful? Will you allow God to break the power of those canceled sins?
God is holy. God refuses to make compromises with sin and death. And God is able to make us holy. The offer of holiness is not a threat. It is a precious promise.