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Goodness and Severity

The Apostle Paul, in Romans 11, instructs us to “Behold therefore the goodness and severity of God.” “The crucial word here,” writes Packer, “is and.” We must be aware of these two aspects of God’s character, neglecting neither, dwelling on neither alone, but contemplating them side by side.


God’s Goodness

Goodness, in God as in human beings, means something admirable, attractive and praiseworthy. When the biblical writers call God good. They are thinking in general of all themoral qualities which prompt his people to call him perfect, and in particular of the generosity which moves them to call him merciful and gracious and to speak of his love. . . .

The Bible is constantly ringing the changes on the theme of the moral perfection of God, as declared in his own words and verified in the experience of his people. When God stood with Moses on Sinai and “proclaimed the name [that is, the revealed character] of the Lord [that is, God as his peoples Jehovah, the sovereign Savior who says of himself, “I am what I am” in the covenant of grace],” what he said was this, “The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slaw to anger abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion, and sin. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished” (Ex 34:6–7). And this proclaiming of God’s moral perfection was carried out as the fulfillment of his promise to -make all his goodness pass before Moses (Ex 33:19). All the particular perfections that are mentioned here, and all that go with them—God’s truthfulness and trustworthiness, his unfailing justice and wisdom, his tenderness, forbearance and entire adequacy to all who penitently seek his help, his noble kindness in offering believers the exalted destiny of fellowship with him in holiness and love—these things together make up God’s goodness in the overall sense of the sum total of his revealed excellencies.

. . . Within the cluster of God’s moral perfections there is one in particular to which the term goodness points—the quality which God especially singled out from the whole when, proclaiming “all his goodness” to Moses, he spoke of himself as “abundant in goodness and truth” (Ex 34:6 KJV). This is the quality of generosity. Generosity means a disposition to give to others in a way that has no mercenary motive, and is not limited by what the recipients deserve but constantly goes beyond it. Generosity expresses the simple wish that others should have what they need to make them happy. Generosity is, so to speak, the focal point of God’s moral perfection; it is the quality which determines how God’s other excellencies are to be displayed.

. . .

God’s Severity

What, now of God’s severity? The word Paul uses in Romans 11:22 means literally “cutting off”; it denotes God’s decisive withdrawal of his goodness from those who have spurned it. It reminds us of a fact about God which he himself declared when he proclaimed his name to Moses; namely, that though he is “abounding in love and faithfulness,” he “does not leave the guilty unpunished”—that is, the obstinate and impenitent guilty (Ex 34:6–7). The act of severity to which Paul referred was God’s rejection of Israel as a body—breaking them off from his olive tree, of which they were the natural branches—because they did not believe the gospel of Jesus Christ. Israel had presumed on God’s goodness, while disregarding the concrete manifestation of goodness in his Son; and God’s reaction had been swift—he had cut Israel off. Paul takes occasion from this to warn his Gentile Christians readers that if they should lapse as Israel had lapsed, God would cut them off too. “You stand fast only thorough faith. So do not become proud, but stand in awe. For if God did not spare the natural branches, neither ill he spare you” (Rom 11:20–21 RSV).

The principle which Paul is applying here is that behind every display of divine goodness stands a threat of severity in judgment if that goodness is scorned. If we do not let it draw us to God in gratitude and responsive love, we have only ourselves to blame when God turns against us.

. . .

But God is not impatient in his severity; just the reverse. He is “slow to anger” (Neh 9:17; Ps 103:8; 145:8; Joel 2:13; Jon 4:2) and “longsuffering” (Ex 34:6; Num 14:18; Ps 86:15 KJV). The Bible makes much of the patience and forbearance of God in postponing merited judgments in order to extend the day of grace to give more opportunity for repentance. Peter reminds us how, when the earth was corrupt and crying out for judgment, nevertheless “the longsuffering of God waited in the days of Noah” (1 Pet 3:20 KJV)—a reference, probably, to the hundred and twenty years’ respite (as it seems to have been) that is mentioned in Genesis 6:3.

. . .

Our Response

From the above line of thought we can learn at least three lessons.

1. Appreciate the goodness of God. Count your blessings. Learn not to take natural benefits, endowments and pleasures for granted; learn to thank God for them all. Do not slight the Bible nor the gospel of Jesus Christ, by and attitude of casualness toward either. The Bible shows you a Savior who suffered and died in order that we sinners might be reconciled to God; Calvary is the measure of the goodness of God; lay it to heart. Ask yourself the psalmist’s question—“How can I Repay the Lord of all his goodness to me?” Seek grace to give his answer—“I will lift up the cup of salvation and call on the name of the Lord. . . . O Lord, truly I am your servant; . . . I will fulfill my vows to the Lord” (Ps 116:12–18).

2. Appreciate the patience of God. Think how he has born with you, and still bears with you, when so much in your life is unworthy of him and you have so richly deserve his rejection. Learn to marvel at his patience and seek grace to imitate it in your dealings with others; and try not to try his patience any more.

3. Appreciate the discipline of God. He is both your upholder and, in the last analysis, your environment. All things come of him, and you have tasted his goodness ever day of your life. Has this experience led you to repentance and faith in Christ? If not, you are trifling with God and stand under the threat of his severity. But if, now, he (in Whitefield’s phrase ) puts thorns in your bed, it is only to awaken you from the sleep of spiritual death—to make you rise up to seek his mercy.

Or if you are a true believer, and he still puts thorns on your bed, it is only to keep you from falling into the somnolence of complacency and to ensure that you “continue in his goodness” be letting your sense of need bring you back constantly in self-abasement and faith to seek his face. This kindly discipline, in which God’s severity touches us for a moment in the context of his goodness, is meant to keep us from having to bear the full brunt of that severity apart form that context. It is a discipline of love, and it must be received accordingly. “My son, do not make light of the Lord’s discipline” (Heb 12:5). “It was good for me to be afflicted so that I might learn your decrees” (Ps 119:71).

—J. I. Packer, Knowing God (InterVarsity Press, 1993), 161–166.

Posted 2009·01·20 by David Kjos
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Posted in: Goodness (of God) · J I Packer · Knowing God · Wrath (of God)

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