Recently in class a discussion arose about who God has revealed himself to be in the Bible. Three presuppositions have to be included before going any further in this discussion: First, that there is a God; second, that God has revealed himself; and third, that God has revealed himself in the Bible. I'm aware that many people do not agree with any of these presuppositions, or at least with some combination of them. The point of this post isnot to prove that God exists; nor is it to prove that the Bible is God's word to us and his primary means of revealing himself. Those are excellent and important discussions, they are just not what I'm aiming to accomplish.
So, what am I aiming to accomplish, you ask? The question in class was specifically "when God described himself in the Bible, what was the first attribute he ascribed to himself?" As Dr. Gerry Breshears is fond of doing (at least from what I can see after 6 classes with him), the answer is not what we all thought it was. What would you say is the primary attribute God revealed about himself? And more specifically, where is it recorded in the Bible?
The answer is found in Exodus 34:6-7. And wouldn't you know it, these two verses are the most quoted verses in the Bible by the Bible!Needless to say, I would have gotten that one wrong had it appeared on a test. So, what did God say about himsefl? Check it out:
The Lord passed before him (Moses) and proclaimed, "The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands (or, the thousandth generation), forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children's children, tot he third and the fourth generation."
The first thing God says about himself is this: I am merciful. Another common word for mercy is compassion, and many translations have that word instead. God, at his heart, is compassionate. He is gracious, he is slow to anger, he is steadfast in his love. This is who God has revealed himself to be! Not a prude, not seeking someone to judge forever, not contentious or a kill-joy. Gracious! Compassionate! Loving! How have we neglected this verse so often? Why do I almost never hear this verse read? Why does the world generally regard the God revealed in the Bible as anything but compassionate?
These are haunting questions for me. I grew up in the church and while I'd like to think that somewhere along the way teachers brought this verse up, I can't remember it. Instead I remember stories that should be reserved for R rated movies (the flood, Daniel in the lion's den, the three amigos in the fire, David and Bathsheba) being put onto flannel graphs. But this isn't about my childhood. It's about the character of God being accurately portrayed. And, shockingly, the place where God reveals his character to us is one of the least recognized but most important passages in the Bible.
But, what about the horrible part at the end of those verses? By no means clearing the guilty, visiting the sin of fathers onto their children. What do we do with that? Verses like this have always been extremely difficult for me to understand, especially considering the fact that in the same sentence God has revealed himself as gracious, loving, and forgiving. Dr Breshear's was very helpful on this subject in class. He gives an analogy: Suppose a father is a drug addict and dealer. And suppose the police find out, arrest him, put him in jail, and send the kids into CPS to be in foster care. The father has been justly punished for his wickedness, but what about the kids? They are impoverished because of his sin. God, in a similar way, does not clear the guilty - meaning, the unrepentant guilty, who do not turn to him in faith that he will forgive. God is just. But the punishment that comes onto people will last for generations. This is because we are in family systems and are not the autonomous individuals we often believer we are in the West. Sin, and righteousness in a similar but opposite way, have effects that are passed down through generations.
The point? It is God's primary character to be gracious, forgiving, and loving. But he will not clear the guilty, because he is just. Grace and justice are partners, not opponents. God's character is not in conflict; he is consistent. And it is that consistent character that led Jesus to the cross. Jesus, who was God in the flesh, died to satisfy God's just demand that payment be made for sin. Yet Jesus took that punishment on himself, extending grace (compassion, mercy, unearned forgiveness) to us who believe in his name for salvation. That's the gospel.