See how Kind and how Severe God is by J I Packer

  See how Kind and how Severe God is by J I Packer

The following passages are from J. I. Packer’s book, “Knowing God,” published in 1973 by Hodder & Stoughton.

     ‘Behold therefore the goodness and severity of God,’ writes Paul in Romans 11:22 (KJV). The crucial word here is ‘and’. The apostle is explaining the relation between Jew and Gentile in the plan of God. He has just reminded his Gentile readers that God rejected the great mass of their Jewish contemporaries for unbelief, while at the same time bringing many pagans like themselves to saving faith. Now he invites them to take note of the two sides of God’s character which appeared in this transaction. ‘Behold therefore the goodness and severity of God: on them which fell, severity; but toward thee, goodness.’ The Christians at Rome are not to dwell on God’s goodness alone, nor on his severity alone, but to contemplate both together. Both are attributes of God—aspects, that is, of his revealed character. Both appear alongside each other in the economy of grace. Both must be acknowledged together if God is to be truly known.


     Never, perhaps, since Paul wrote has there been more need to labour this point than there is today. Modern muddle-headedness and confusion as to the meaning of faith in God is almost beyond description. People say they believe in God, but have no idea who it is that they believe in, or what difference believing in him may make.

     Christians who want to help their floundering fellows into what a famous old tract used to call ‘safety, certainty, and enjoyment’ are constantly bewildered as to where to begin: the fantastic hotchpotch of fancies about God quite takes their breath away. How on earth have people got into such a muddle? he asks. What lies at the root of their confusion? And where is the starting-point for setting them straight?

     To these questions there are several complementary sets of answers. One is that people have got into the way of following private religious hunches rather than learning of God from his own Word; and we have to try and help them to unlearn the pride and, in some cases, misconceptions about Scripture which gave rise to this attitude, and to base their convictions henceforth, not on what they feel, but on what the Bible says. A second answer is that modern people think of all religions as equal and equivalent, and draw their stock of ideas about God from pagan as well as Christian sources and we have to try and show people the uniqueness and finality of the Lord Jesus Christ, God’s last word to us.

     A third answer is that people have ceased to recognise the reality of their own sinfulness, which imparts a degree of perversity and enmity against God to all that they think and do; and it is our task to try and introduce people to this fact about themselves, and so make them self-distrustful and open to correction by the word of Christ. A fourth answer, no less basic than the three already given, is that people today are in the habit of dissociating the thought of God’s goodness from that of his severity; and we must seek to wean them from this habit, since nothing but misbelief is possible as long as it persists.

     The habit in question, first learned from some gifted German theologians of the last century, has infected modem Western Protestantism as a whole. To reject all ideas of divine wrath and judgment and to assume that God’s character, misrepresented (forsooth!) in many parts of the Bible, is really one of indulgent benevolence without any severity, is the rule rather than the exception among ordinary folk today.

            It is true that some recent theologians, in reaction, have tried to reaffirm the truth of God’s holiness, but their efforts have seemed half-hearted and their words have fallen for the most part on deaf ears. Modern Protestants are not going to give up their ‘enlightened’ adherence to the doctrine of a celestial Santa Claus merely because a Brunner or a Niebuhr suspects this is not the whole story. The certainty that there is no more to be said of God (if God there be) than that he is infinitely forbearing and kind, is as hard to eradicate as bindweed. And when once it has put down roots, Christianity, in the true sense of the word, simply dies off. For the substance of Christianity is faith in the forgiveness of sins through the redeeming work of Christ on the cross.

     But on the basis of the Santa Claus theology, sins create no problem and atonement becomes needless; God’s active favour extends no less to those who disregard his commands than to those who keep them. The idea that God’s attitude to me is affected by whether or not I do what he says has no place in the thought of the man in the street, and any attempt to show the need for fear in God’s presence, and trembling at his word, gets written off as impossibly old-fashioned—‘Victorian’, and ‘Puritan’, and ‘sub-Christian’.

     Yet the Santa Claus theology carries within itself the seeds of its own collapse, for it cannot cope with the fact of evil. It is no accident that when belief in the ‘good God’ of liberalism became widespread, about the turn of the twentieth century, the so-called problem of evil (which was not regarded as a problem before) suddenly leaped into prominence as the number-one concern of Christian apologetics. This was inevitable, for it is not possible to see the good-will of a heavenly Santa Claus in heartbreaking and

destructive things like cruelty, or marital infidelity, or death on the road, or lung cancer. The only way to save the liberal view of God is to dissociate him from these things, and to deny that he has any direct relation to them or control over them; in other words, to deny his omnipotence and lordship over his world. Liberal theologians took this course fifty years ago, and the man in the street takes it today. Thus he is left with a kind God who means well, but cannot always insulate his children from trouble and grief. When trouble comes, therefore, there is nothing to do but grin and bear it. In this way, by an ironic paradox, faith in a God who is all goodness and no severity tends to confirm people in a fatalistic and pessimistic attitude to life.

     Here, then, is one of the religious By-Path Meadows of our day, leading (as in one way or another they all do) into the land of Doubting Castle and Giant Despair. How can those who have strayed this way get back on the true road? Only by learning to relate God’s goodness to his severity, according to the Scriptures. Our purpose here is to sketch out the substance of biblical teaching on this point:


     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 those moral 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’. Let us elaborate a little.

     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 his name, (that is, the revealed character) the LORD (that is, God as his people’s Jehovah, the sovereign saviour who says of himself “I am what I am” in the covenant of grace)’, what he said was this, ‘The LORD, the LORD God, the compassionate and gracious God, slow 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’ (Exodus 34:5—7 NIV). And this proclaiming of God’s moral perfection was carried out as the fulfilment of his promise to make all his goodness pass before Moses (Exodus 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 people 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 excellences.

     And when David declared, ‘As for God, his way is perfect’ (2 Samuel 22:31; Psalm 18:30), what he meant was that God’s people find in experience, as he himself had found, that God never comes short of the goodness to which he has laid claim. ‘His way is perfect; the word of the LORD is flawless. He is a shield for all who take refuge in him’. The psalm as a whole is David’s retrospective declaration of how he had himself proved that God is faithful to his promises and all-sufficient as a shield and defender and every child of God who has not forfeited his birthright by back-sliding enjoys a parallel experience.

     (Incidentally, if you have never read carefully through this psalm, asking yourself at each point how far your testimony matches up to that of David, I would urge you to do so at once—and then to do it again at frequent intervals. You will find it a salutary, if shattering, discipline.)

     However, there is more to be said. Within the cluster of God’s moral perfections there is one in particular to which the term ‘goodness’ points—the quality which God specially singled out from the whole when, proclaiming ‘all his goodness’ to Moses, he spoke of himself as ‘abundant in goodness and truth’ (Exodus 34:6f.). This is the quality of generosity. Generosity means a disposition to give to others in a way which has no mercenary motive and is not limited by what the recipients deserve, but consistently 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 all God’s other excellences are to be displayed.

     God is ‘abundant in goodness’—ultro bonus, as Latin-speaking theologians long ago used to put it, spontaneously good, overflowing with generosity. Theologians of the Reformed school use the New Testament word ‘grace’ (free favour) to cover every act of divine generosity, of whatever kind, and hence distinguish between the ‘common grace’ of ‘creation, preservation, and all the blessings of this life’, and the ‘special grace’ manifested in the economy of salvation—the point of the contrast between ‘common’ and ‘special’ being that all benefit from the former, but not all are touched by the latter.The biblical way of putting this distinction would be to say that God is good to all in some ways and to some in all ways.

     God’s generosity in bestowing natural blessings is acclaimed in Psalm 145. ‘The LORD is good to all: he has compassion on all he has made . . The eyes of all look to you, and you give them their food at the proper time. You open your hand and satisfy the desires of every living thing’ (verses 9, 15, 16; cf. Acts 14:17). The psalmist’s point is that, since God controls all that happens in his world, every meal, every pleasure, every possession, every bit of sun, every night’s sleep, every moment of health and safety, everything else that sustains and enriches life, is a divine gift. And how abundant these gifts are! ‘Count your blessings, name them one by one’, urges the children’s chorus, and anyone who seriously begins to list his natural blessings alone will soon feel the force of the next line —‘and it will surprise you what the Lord has done.’ But the mercies of God on the natural level, however abundant, are overshadowed by the greater mercies of spiritual redemption.

     When the singers of Israel summoned the people to give thanks to God because ‘he is good: his love endures for ever’ (Psalms 106:1, 107:1, 118:1, 136:1; cf. 100:4 f; 2 Chronicles 5:13, 7:3; Jeremiah 33:11), it was usually of redemptive mercies that they were thinking: mercies such as God’s ‘mighty acts’ in saving Israel from Egypt (Psalms 106:2 ff., 136), his willingness to forbear and forgive when his servants fall into sin (Psalms 86:5), and his readiness to teach people his way (Psalms 119:68). And the goodness to which Paul was referring in Romans 11:22 was God’s mercy in grafting ‘wild’ Gentiles into his olive tree—that is, the fellowship of his covenant people, the community of saved believers.

     The classical exposition of God’s goodness is Psalm 107. Here, to enforce his summons to ‘give thanks to the LORD, for he is good’, the psalmist generalises from past experiences of Israel in captivity and Israelites in personal need to give four examples of how people ‘cried out to the LORD in their trouble, and he delivered them out of their distress’ (verses 1, 6, 13, 19, 28). The first example is of God redeeming the helpless from their enemies and leading them out of barrenness to find a home; the second is of God delivering from ‘darkness and the shadow of death’ those whom he had himself brought into this condition because of their rebellion against him; the ‘third is of God healing the diseases with which he had chastened ‘fools’ who disregarded him; the fourth is of God protecting voyagers by stilling the storm which they thought would sink their ship. Each episode ends with the refrain, ‘Let them give thanks to the LORD for his unfailing love and his wonderful deeds for men’ (verses 8, 15, 21, 31). The whole psalm is a majestic panorama of the operations of divine goodness, transforming human lives.


     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 (Exodus 34:6f). The act of severity to which Paul referred was God’s rejection of Israel as a body—breaking them off from the 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 his 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 Christian readers that if they should lapse as Israel had lapsed, God would cut them off too. ‘You stand fast only through faith. So do not become proud, but stand in awe. For if God did not spare the natural branches, neither will he spare you’ (Romans 11:20f, 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.

     Earlier in Romans, Paul addressed the self-satisfied non- Christian critic of human nature as follows: ‘God’s kindness leads you towards repentance’ (Romans 2:4)—that is, as J. B. Phillips correctly paraphrases, ‘is meant to lead you to repentance’. ‘You who pass judgment do the same things’—yet God has borne with your faults, the very faults which you regard as meriting his judgment when you see them in others, and you ought to be very humble and very thankful. But if, while tearing strips off others, you omit to turn to God yourself, then ‘you show contempt for the riches of his kindness, tolerance and patience’ and thereby ‘because of your stubbornness and your unrepentant heart, you are storing up wrath against yourself’ (Romans 2:1-5). Similarly, Paul tells the Roman Christians that God’s goodness is their portion only on a certain condition—‘provided that you continue in his kindness. Otherwise, you also will be cut off’ (Romans 11:22). It is the same principle in each case. Those who decline to respond to God’s goodness by repentance, and faith, and trust, and submission to his will, cannot wonder or complain if sooner or later the tokens of his goodness are withdrawn, the opportunity of benefiting from them ends, and retribution supervenes.

     But God is not impatient in his severity; just the reverse. He is ‘slow to anger’ (Nehemiah 9:17; Psalms 103:8, 145:8; Joel 2:13; Jonah 4:2 and ‘longsuffering’ (Exodus 34:6, Numbers 14:18; Psalms 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 and 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 Peter 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.

     Again, in Romans 9:22 (KJV) Paul tells us that down the course of history God has ‘endured with much longsuffering the vessels of wrath fitted to destruction’. Again, Peter explains to his first-century readers that the reason why the promised return of Christ to judgment has not happened yet is that God ‘is longsuffering to us-ward, not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance’ (2 Peter 3:9, KJV) and the same explanation presumably applies today. The patience of God in giving a chance to repent (Revelations 2:5) before judgment finally falls is one of the marvels of the Bible story. It is no wonder that the New Testament stresses that longsuffering is a Christian virtue and duty; it is in truth a part of the image of God (Galatians 5:22; Ephesians 4:2; Colossians 3:12 NIV)


     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, or the gospel of Jesus Christ, by an attitude of casualness towards either. The Bible shows you a Saviour 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 for all his goodness towards me?’ Seek grace to give his answer—‘I will lift up the cup of salvation, and call on the name of the LORD… 0 LORD, truly I am your servant . . . I will fulfil my vows to the LORD’ (Psalms 116:12ff).

2. Appreciate the patience of God. 

     Think how he has borne with you, and still bears with you, when so much in your life is unworthy of him, and you have so richly deserved 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 every 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, and to make you rise up to seek his mercy.

     Or if you are a true believer, and he still puts thorns in your bed, it is only to keep you from falling into the somnolence of complacency, and to ensure that you ‘continue in his kindness’ by 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 from that context. It is a discipline of love and must be received accordingly. ‘My son, do not make light of the Lord’s discipline’ (Hebrew 12:5). ‘It was good for me to be afflicted so that I might learn your decrees’ (Psalms 119:71 NIV). {179-188}

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