The most popular cultural conception of God is that He is loving. The idea is that He is a God of all (and only) grace, overlooking the foibles, peccadilloes, and even most severe sins because He is too nice to be mean. He is so loving that He could never be angry. This perception is of God as an aging grandfather who dispenses candy and dollar bills on command is just a little forgetful, but always smiling and never unhappy with anyone. This concept is so pervasive that if it is refuted or even questioned the objector is mocked and derided.
But is this idea about God correct?
Consider just one sentence from Paul’s letter to the Romans. In the middle of an argument that Gentiles should never be arrogant about their salvation or despise any Israelite because they have rejected Christ as Messiah, he interjects this short sentence:
“Behold then the kindness and severity of God…” (Romans 11:22)
If we are going to be proud of our salvation (and our personal worthiness for that salvation), we do well to “behold” (look at, examine, and consider) two seemingly contrary attributes of God — His kindness and His severity.
His kindness, in the context, was His generosity that saved Gentiles even though they were outside the covenanted plans of God with Israel. And His kindness is His patience which He has extended to Israel (as a nation) and individual Israelites so that they would come to salvation (Rom. 2:4-5). This kindness seems to be unremarkable to us. It is assumed. “Of course God is kind. What else could He be?”
Well, He could also be wrathful. In fact, He is wrathful. He is infinitely wrathful, just as He is infinitely kind. These attributes do not conflict with each other, but they complement and correspond to each other.
For just a moment, consider the severity of God. The severity that Paul speaks of in Romans 11 is that individual Israelites have been hardened and experienced His wrath (vv. 7b-10). And many Gentiles also have been and are under that wrath and might experience that wrath if they do not have genuine faith in Christ (v. 22b).
In another similar passage, Paul explains just how desperate the situation was for Gentiles who were not redeemed and “uncircumcised” (not part of covenant Israel). To help us consider God’s severity, look at Ephesians 2:12 —
“… that at that time you were without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers from the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world.”
We were without Christ. Not just without Jesus, but without the role Jesus came to fulfill as Messiah (Christ) of Israel. Israel had (and still has) the hope that the Messiah would redeem her, but Gentiles (we) had no such confidence. It was a privilege to Jews that the Christ would come for them, but the Gentiles had nothing like that.
We were without a citizenship. Not only were we “excluded” from Israel, but we were estranged and alienated from her. We did not have any of the privileges of belonging to God’s people. Israel could expect “citizen” benefits as Israelites. Not so for Gentiles.
We were strangers from the covenant. God made a covenantal promise to Abraham (Gen. 12:3) that was expanded into three other covenants (Palestinian, David, and New). All those were for Israel only. Gentiles were foreigners and strangers to those promises, and u naquainted with the blessings of those promises — no land, no King, and no spiritual blessing (see Ezk. 37:26-28).
We had no hope. Because we were unconnected to Israel and Israel alone had the promises of God, we had no eternal hope that God would work in our lives. We had no confidence that things would turn out well for us; we had no confidence in surviving death and the eternal state on the other side of death.
We were without God in the world. Here is the worst part of our condition. Not only had we turned our backs on God, but He had rightly rejected us and His wrath was poised to be poured out against us. For man to be without God means more than man has rejected God. It means God has rejected man and left the man to attempt to make his way through the world and into eternity without God. This is the real tragedy of atheism — it is not that man leaves God, but that God leaves man.
All these realities are the (beginning of the) severity of God. Under His severity, the condition of man is desolate and empty. And into that severity, His kindness is often interjected. Those who deserve His severity (in no way compromising His kindness, for He has waited patiently for our repentance, Rom. 2:4-5), instead at times receive His kindness. Those who were without Christ are given Christ. Those who were aliens are brought into fellowship. Those who were strangers are made friends, brothers, and sons. Those who were hopeless are made eternally hopeful. And those who had no God are given the only God.
Only when we consider the severity of God, will the kindness of God have any significant depth of meaning. Friends, let us today meditate on and consider the kindness and severity of God. Let us remember what we were without Christ. And then let us contemplate the overwhelming kindness that has seen fit to bring us into the blessings that were particularly for the people of Israel. We who only knew the severe God are now in fellowship with the kind God.