Imagine a courtroom scene. You are accused of a crime and now on trial. Problem is, you know you are guilty. But as you walk in, you notice the judge gives you a reassuring nod of recognition, as if he had known you all your life. He summons you to the bench. “Don’t worry about a thing,” he tells you with a warm fatherly smile. “I know all about this case. In fact, I’m going to be your defense attorney.”
The late theologian Shirley C. Guthrie would explain that this is the way we should picture what the Bible calls the Judgment. “Must we talk about the wrath of God?” Guthrie asked. “Yes,” he answers. “But God’s wrath is not like that of the gods. It is the wrath of the God who was in Christ reconciling the world to God’s self” (Christian Doctrine, pages 261-262).
Unfortunately, instead of allowing Jesus’ love, compassion and kindness to shape their understanding of God, many Christians gravitate toward what we might call a “forensic” model of salvation. “Forensic” is a penal or legal term. This model sees God the Father as stern and vengeful, a frightening God from whom we need Jesus to save us. It assumes that the starting place for understanding God is not Jesus Christ, but “the law,” or the commands of the Bible. This model sees the law as so important that even God is subject to it. Since God is concerned first about the demands of his law and only secondly about the well-being of humans, he will punish them for lawbreaking in the same way that the State and human courts and legal systems do — through a straightforward proving of guilt, a guilty verdict, followed by an appropriate punishment.
Front and center in the forensic model is God’s anger against sinning humanity. God is offended, and someone must pay. Jesus steps forward and takes the full force of God’s wrath against human sin. That means we have had our penalty paid for us, but this model does nothing for a restored relationship of love and trust. This “offended deity” picture forgets that first and foremost, God is love (1 John 4:16), that God is joyously working to bring “many children to glory,” and that our salvation was in his mind “from the creation of the world” (Revelation 13:8).
This forensic model also forgets something even more basic — that Jesus Christ and the Father along with the Holy Spirit are the three Persons of the one God, and that the Son or Word made Incarnate in Jesus was the perfect revelation of the Father in human form. The Father is not some angry, vengeful deity that we need protection from; he is just like Jesus. Jesus, remember, is “the exact representation” of the being of God (Hebrews 1:3). The Father is full of compassion and mercy, a God who “desires mercy and not sacrifice,” just like Jesus. Jesus is the starting place for understanding God; the law is not.
God does not have a split personality. There is not one “good God,” Jesus, and one “bad God,” the Father. There is one God — Father, Son and Spirit — who loves us unconditionally and has in Jesus made full provision not only for our sins to be forgiven and removed, but also for us to be fully included in the love relationship that the Son has shared with the Father from eternity.
God is not in the business of training obedient servants, but in building a family. The apostle Paul used the word “adoption” in describing the kind of relationship that God has created for humanity in Jesus Christ (Ephesians 1:4-5). Through the Incarnation of the Son — by Jesus becoming one of us and taking up our cause as his own — God has drawn us into and made us part of the intimate relationship that Jesus has with the Father.
We see the power of this intimate love that God has for humanity in the parable of the Prodigal Son. The repentant son is welcomed home by the Father and restored to full rights of being part of the family (Luke 15:11-24). This depicts the God who was in Christ reconciling the world to himself (2 Corinthians 5:19). The death of Christ was not an act of divine child abuse, as some critics of Christianity have said. It was a divine rescue springing from God’s love for us (John 3:16), an intervention designed to restore a purpose of which we were unaware in our ignorance and darkness (verses 19-20).
Set against this majestic purpose, God’s wrath can be seen for what it is —anger not at the humanity he sent Jesus to save, but at sin, which destroys the relationship he has always intended for us in Christ. God is not some resentful, selfish parent in an emotional stew because we have not played by his rules. God is Father, Son and Spirit, loving, faithful and unconditionally committed to bringing humanity into the joy of knowing him for who he really is.
Mercy vs. judgment
God, however, will never be at peace with sin. The great human tragedy is that we have been unaware of the pardon and reconciliation the Father has brought about through Jesus Christ. We have loved darkness rather than light and have chosen to ignore what the Father offers us through the Son.
Through Christ, the disconnect between the world and God has been removed once and for all. The great majority of unbelievers are people who through weakness or ignorance are resisting the influence of the life-giving Holy Spirit of Christ, the Person of the Godhead who beckons to us to abandon our addiction to darkness and sin — who testifies in our hearts to God’s saving, atoning and reconciling work in Jesus on our behalf (John 14:25-27; 15:26).
Jesus did not just bring good news, he was good news. The overwhelming emphasis of his teaching was mercy, not vengeance. His hallmark sayings reflect the God who is love, in whose mind mercy rejoices against judgment (James 2:13). Thus, what was hinted at in parts of the Old Testament becomes the major theme in the Gospels — “I will have mercy and not sacrifice.” Jesus’ word pictures show us a forgiving father, a Good Samaritan, seeking shepherds and splendidly generous employers, healings, exorcisms, a Great Physician who pleaded “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28).