“There is a difference between having a rational judgement that honey is sweet and having a sense of its sweetness,” Jonathan Edwards wrote. “A man may have the former that knows not how honey tastes.” The Bible often describes our knowledge of God and his gospel with experiential language, using “sense” language like “taste and see” or the “eyes of the heart.” The term Christians have used to identify this emotive knowing is spirituality. Expressions of spirituality have taken many different forms, from Catholic mysticism to Pentecostalism. Evangelicals rejoice in the objective work of Christ in the gospel yet an important aspect of our knowledge of the goodness of God and his saving work is through, what Edwards calls, “the sense of the heart.” That’s hard to define and often harder to bring about. So, over the next several articles, writers for The Gospel Coalition will consider issues related to evangelical spirituality.
There is something about fatherly anger that unsettles. My own father was a good man and gentle in the right ways. Decades later, though, I can recall a flash of very early memory crystallized after disobedience on my part. The edges of my recollections are blurry, but there is anger there, just and raw. My childhood was not full of such moments. When needed, however, my father’s anger rose up. My fear rose with it.
This experience leads to a question that bears on our evangelical spirituality: Is it appropriate to suggest that God, our father, grows upset, even angry, over the sins of his justified children?
The Beauty of Gospel-Centered Spirituality
Some today have suggested that because of our regeneration, adoption, and justification, God looks on his children with unbroken favor. Nothing we do, goes the line, can change God’s affection for us. This view is grounded in what theologians call a positional understanding of our salvation. As Martin Luther put it, our savior, Jesus Christ, has transacted by his death and life the “sweet exchange.” He took our sin and gave us his righteousness. We stand justified in him.
I love Luther’s metaphor for justification, and it is my contention that the contemporary view is largely correct. Jesus used positional language in a typically visceral style when he said of those given him by God that “no man is able to pluck them out of my Father’s hand” (John 10:29). Because God’s grace overwhelms our sin, we are held fast by our Savior. We are “in him,” as the apostle Paul said (Eph. 1:11), possessing union with Christ and all his merit.
The Best Father You Know
Is God, though, indifferent to our sin following our conversion? Is he something like a smiling, benevolent grandfather who executed all the hard work a generation ago?
I would suggest that the Lord is more like the best father you know, active, engaged, eminently fair, righteously opposing sin, and relentlessly gracious. Consider the example of David following his consummation of adultery with Bathsheba (2 Sam. 11-12). David’s horrible sin resulted in the most cathartic act of repentance in the Scriptures, a catharsis left bare for all to see in Psalm 51. Because in God’s grace David responded to God’s anger toward his sin with repentance, David stands as the anti-Judas. Like the entrepreneur-traitor, David sinned in a catastrophic way. Unlike the profiteer, David repented.
In the midst of all this, God registered divine dissatisfaction with David: “the thing that David had done displeased the Lord” (2 Sam. 11:27). The text’s terse description of the suffering of David’s sin chills the blood of any parent: “the Lord afflicted the child that Uriah’s wife bore to David, and he became sick” (2 Sam. 11:15). God acts justly in the face of our sin. This “just justice,” as we might call it, includes displeasure and tangible distress.
David, we note, was justified in God’s sight just like we are (see Gen. 15:6). Yet we see here that continual repentance for sin is called for (and seems nonsensical if God takes no notice of post-conversion transgressions). This is why, as Wayne Grudem has pointed out in For the Fame of God’s Name, when praying the Lord’s prayer we ask for forgiveness of our sins (Matt. 6:12; Luke 11:4). Our post-conversion sins displease God. We pray for power over them so that we will “not grieve the Holy Spirit of God” whom Paul notes sealed the Ephesian Christians “for the day of redemption” (Eph. 4:30).
At this point we might mention that God does not look upon his sinning children with wrath. The Davidic episode shows, though, that our on-the-ground decisions and actions matter to God and draw a response from him. God’s punitive response to sin is aimed at restoration and renewal. The Lord disciplined David, the man after his own heart, as one he loved, and so David could cry out, “blessed is the man against whom the Lord will not count his sin” (Psalm 32:2, quoted by Paul in Rom. 4:8 to demonstrate the beauty of justification). God does the same for all his children (see Prov. 3:12; Heb. 12:6; Rev. 3:19).
The Spirit Is Stronger Still
The fact that our sins displease God motivates us in practical terms to put our unrighteousness to death through the power of the Spirit offered and given us in the gospel (Col. 3:1-10). Pastor-theologian John Calvin said it best in his Institutes: “[H]e who in the end profits by God’s scourges is the man who considers God angry at his vices, but merciful and kindly toward himself” (III:4:34). Like David, God is angry at our “vices,” but if we may inject some Lutheran paradox into our treatment of Calvin, this anger is also kindness that leads us to repentance (Rom. 2:4).
God’s response to the sin of believers is not vengeance, Calvin noted, but “chastisement.” The Frenchman pointed out that “when a father quite severely corrects his son, he does not do this to take vengeance on him or to maltreat him, but rather to teach him and to render him more cautious therefore” (III:4:31). The authors of the Westminster Confession concurred with Calvin when they noted that believers “may, by their sins, fall under God’s fatherly displeasure, and not have the light of his countenance restored unto them, until they humble themselves, confess their sins, beg pardon, and renew their faith and repentance” (11.5).
How, then, do we know when we are being chastised? Is God always chastising us since we constantly sin? The Spirit continually convicts us of sin, giving us a low-level form of chastisement (John 16:8). Discipline of the kind that David faced is rare in biblical terms, it seems, and reserved for outsized sins; paraphrasing Calvin, some transgressions receive greater harshness, and many meet with more kindly indulgence (III:4:35). In many cases, we respond to the Spirit’s prompting when our sins have not fully blossomed, a pattern that Calvin calls “voluntary chastisement.” When by the Spirit’s power we train our eyes not to surf over sexual images, or our bodies to avoid gluttonous choices, or our lips not to self-promote, we are engaging in our own chastisement, and no greater penalty will result. So often in our lives, we do not receive what our sins deserve.
The Practical Effects of God’s Displeasure with Sin
The Christian is not to live in abject fear of God’s discipline. However, it is also true that sin is not to abound because grace abounds. It is the other way around (Rom. 5:20). We are to hate sin and to love grace. We cannot be laissez-faire about holiness. While it is marvelously true that Christ has won our salvation, we must not forget that he works with us to mold and make us into the new creation that we are (2 Cor. 5:17). Furthermore, we strive for holiness in order to win crowns and treasures in heaven and avoid displeasing the Lord (Matt. 6:20; see also Eph. 6; 1 John 1).
We do so through faith given of God. John Piper said as much in his Pleasures of God: “We should never think of obedience as something unattached to saving faith as though the one could exist for long without the other. Obedience to Christ is the necessary result of true faith” (247). Put differently by German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the one who believes obeys, and the one who obeys believes (Cost of Discipleship, 68). True belief in the true Christ drives true holiness.
Let’s consider a picture of this. Our spiritual lives resemble a long car drive through winding terrain—think Pilgrim’s Progress for the interstate generation. We keep our eyes on the distant horizon while paying attention to any number of possible problems on the road directly before us. We need both a bigger view of a grand God and careful attention to the sins that so easily beset us in our daily lives to make it safely through to the other side. It is not one perspective or the other that we need; it is indubitably both.
A Better Father in a Greater World
As a just father acting in the image of the divine patriarch, my father reacted to my disobedience by punishing me. This sometimes hurt, as Scripture suggests it should; the rod that is not to be spared is not, it would initially appear, weightless (Prov. 13:24). But I knew even then with a 5-year-old’s capacity that though I could anger my dad, I would never lose him.
So it is, I think, with our heavenly father, who is greater than all our earthly fathers, some of whom may not have proven as kind as my own dad. God watches us; he disciplines us; he grips us with a holy love that never lets us go, never casts us out. This world is bitter and disappointing, filled with fathers who forsake and sever, but we know a better father living in a greater world, a world of love as Jonathan Edwards called it, a Trinitarian realm where God’s unfailing kindness never fails and never stops.