Sunday, June 18, 2017

Divine Love, Holiness, Mercy and Justice

https://www.flickr.com/photos/philipcohen/13750087495/

Recently, I came across this quote by J. C. Ryle, who was an Anglican bishop (the first one in Liverpool, England, according to Wikipedia). It is from a sermon he wrote called “The Great Separation”:
Beware of new and strange doctrines about Hell and the eternity of punishment. Beware of manufacturing a God of your own: a God who is all mercy — but not just; a God who is all love — but not holy; a God who has a Heaven for everybody — but a Hell for none; a God who can allow good and evil to be side by side in time — but will make no distinction between good and evil in eternity. Such a God is an idol of your own imagination!
Ryle was, no doubt, a good Christian, a fine man of God, and rightly to be celebrated. But if it may be permitted, I do have a problem with what he has said in this rather popular quote (and one that has often been echoed by others). In the body of his sermon, Ryle is anxious to safeguard the doctrine of an eternal hell, which is the reason for the distinctions he makes in this quote. For Ryle, anyone who disagrees with that doctrine is presenting a “strange and new” doctrine.

Perhaps such a view that differed from his new and strange to him, but it was not new to the Church, which has never come to a settled understanding on the nature and duration of “hell.” In fact, for about the first five hundred years, the predominant view of the eastern branch of the Church was very different from Ryle’s. They understood the Scriptures as teaching a universal restoration in which God would finally be “all in all” (1 Corinthians 15:28), that the purpose of hell was for cleansing and that it was therefore of limited duration.

But whatever view one takes about hell and everlasting punishment, the problem with Ryle’s quote is that it seems to me to pit God’s love with God’s holiness, and God’s mercy with God’s justice. As if a God who is all love cannot also be holy, and a God who is all mercy cannot also be just. Or as if the love of God must be qualified by the holiness of God, lest God’s love be taken as overly loving, even to the point of offending God’s holiness. Or likewise, as if the mercy of God must be balanced out by the justice of God, lest God’s mercy be understood as too merciful, even to the point of offending God’s justice. But this does not seem to me to adequately understand the nature of divine love and holiness, or of divine mercy and justice.

LOVE AND HOLINESS
The First Epistle of John tells us that God is love (1 John 4:8, and again in 1 John 4:16). Love is not merely a part of God (as if God had parts), or something God has, or does or chooses. It goes deeper than that: Love is what God is. And what God is, he is wholly, not just in part; and not just potentially, either, but fully actualized, fully expressed. In other words, God is all love.

That God is all love tells us about the holiness of God. The Greek word for “holy” refers to what is “set apart.” Holy things are those set apart for God. God’s people are “set apart” for him and are called “holy ones” (another word for this is “saints”). The holiness of God’s own self is the utter uniqueness of God — there is none other like God.

Only of God can it be said that he is love. Human beings may have love, choose love and act in love. But it cannot be said of any of us that we are love. Whatever love, or capacity to love, we may possess, we do not have it in and of ourselves. It is a gift we have received from the God who is love. This uniqueness, that God is love, sets him apart from everything.

God is all love. Every act of God, then, is a manifestation of both the love and holiness of God. A god who is not all love cannot be a god who is truly holy but is a divided, conflicted deity, because it is possible for him to act in ways that are not of love.

We can reckon with the holiness of God as much as we like, but in the end, it does not differ from his love one bit. So, the love of God does not need to be qualified by the holiness of God. For if the holiness of God is the same as his love, then to qualify God’s love with his holiness would be to qualify God’s love with his love. On the other hand, if the holiness of God is different from his love, then to qualify God’s love with holiness would be to qualify it with something that is non-love. In that case, God’s love would itself then be something less than all love: love qualified by non-love. The God of whom it is said that he is love would also then be something less than love — and God would not be truly holy after all.

MERCY AND JUSTICE
The love of God does not work against his holiness, and the holiness of God does not work against his love. Nor do they balance each other out. Likewise, the mercy of God does not work against his justice, and the justice of God does not work against his mercy, or his love. But both the mercy and justice of God are manifestations of the holy love of the God who is all love.

Because God is all love, the justice of God is loving toward all. God’s justice, then, is not about retribution, for love is not retributive. But God’s justice is always restorative, because love always seeks what is best for the one who is loved. So, God, who is love, always seeks what is best for his loved ones (which includes everyone), even when they consider themselves enemies of God.

If God’s justice is restorative, is this not divine mercy? To speak of the mercy of God and the justice of God, then, is not to speak of two different things but to speak of the same thing in two different ways. For both divine mercy and divine justice fully manifest the love of God toward us, or else they have no place in the God who is love.

The restorative justice of God means that, though good and evil exist side by side in the present age, this shall not always be the case. The loving justice of the God who is wholly love will by that holy love remove all evil from his loved ones until they are fully restored, and then God will truly be “all in all” (1 Corinthians 15:28). Otherwise, evil would continue to exist in God’s good creation forever — and would that not be a failure either of God’s love or God’s power, or both?