Why is it that God’s greatest love isn’t bestowed on the faithful angels, who never fell and who steadfastly throughout all time have been loyal to love and worship the God who made them? Why would God love wretched sinners and pay the ultimate price to demonstrate that great love?
Frankly, the full answer to that question is still shrouded in mystery. It is an immense, incomprehensible wonder. We do not know the reasons God chooses to love fallen sinners. And I must confess, together with each true child of God, that I do not know why God chose to love me. I know only that it is for His own glory, and certainly not because He finds me deserving of His love. In other words, the reasons for His love are to be found in God alone, not in those whom He loves.
And what Scripture reveals is that the will to save is intrinsic to who God is. “God is love” (1 John 4:8, 16). It is not foreign to His nature to be a Savior—to seek and to save the lost. He is a Savior by nature. First Timothy 1:1 refers to the Father as “God our Savior.” One of the most vivid verbal images Jesus ever gave describing God is the eagerness of the father in the parable of the prodigal son, looking intently for his lost son’s return, running to meet the wayward boy when he returned, lavishing him with undeserved gifts and status. That is the very character of the God we worship. He is a saving God.
And He has always been known as a Savior. Theological liberals try to put a great gulf between the New Testament and the Old Testament. They often claim that the God of the Old Testament is an angry, vengeful, envious, vitriolic, hostile, punishing kind of deity. The God revealed in the New Testament is different—a compassionate, loving, saving deity. That’s a foolish and dishonest corruption of Scripture.
The God of the Old Testament was known to His people as a Savior. Israel knew God as a Savior—a saving God. He is a Deliverer. He rescues people from bondage and death.
Of course, that’s not how it is in the science of ethnology and the world of religion and deities. Study ancient Middle Eastern religions, and you’re not going to find gods who save. Virtually every man-made religious system ever known features some means by which the worshiper, by his own efforts, can save himself—or at the very least better himself. But you’re not going to find any man-made god who is by nature a savior, a rescuer.
For example, in Old Testament times, Baal was what the Canaanites named their deities. The Hebrew expression ba’al was taken from a Phoenician word meaning “lord,” and when the name was used by itself, it was usually a reference to the sun god. Each Canaanite tribe or locality supposedly had its own distinctive god. Baal-zebub, for example, was the god of Ekron (2 Kings 1:2–3, 6, 16). His name meant “lord of the flies,” and he was so thoroughly foul and filthy that his name was adapted, turned into a pun, and used in New Testament times as a name for Satan: Beelzebul, meaning “lord of dung” (Mark 3:22).
The Canaanite Baals were not interested in saving anyone. They could be plied for favors with sacrifices, but it was deemed contrary to the very idea of a deity to imagine that an offended deity himself would take the initiative to provide salvation, forgiveness, or deliverance to anyone who had incurred the wrath or disfavor of the gods.
Elijah’s encounter with the priests of Baal on Mount Carmel shows the stark contrast between Yahweh and Baal. Elijah proposed a contest:
“I alone am left a prophet of the Lord, but Baal’s prophets are 450 men. Now let them give us two oxen; and let them choose one ox for themselves and cut it up, and place it on the wood, but put no fire under it; and I will prepare the other ox and lay it on the wood, and I will not put a fire under it. Then you call on the name of your god, and I will call on the name of the Lord, and the God who answers by fire, He is God.” And all the people said, “That is a good idea.” (1 Kings 18:22–24)
So in a classic characterization of Baal, the priests of Baal tried everything they could think of to get Baal to react. Of course, there is no Baal, so he couldn’t do anything because he didn’t exist. Even the demons who might play to people’s superstitions and impersonate Baal were unable to effect the necessary miracle. Elijah therefore mocked them, driving them into a mad frenzy.
It came about at noon, that Elijah mocked them and said, “Call out with a loud voice, for he is a god; either he is occupied or gone aside, or is on a journey, or perhaps he is asleep and needs to be awakened.” So they cried with a loud voice and cut themselves according to their custom with swords and lances until the blood gushed out on them. (1 Kings 18:27–28).
The best that could be said about Baal (or any other man-made deity) would be that he’s indifferent. That’s what Elijah’s mockery implied. In effect, “Your god is occupied with other things and isn’t even listening to you.” The Baal-priests’ frantic efforts ended in bloody exhaustion, with no answer at all from Baal.
The pagan spectrum swings all the way over from indifference to hostility. The Ammonites in the Old Testament worshiped a god named Molech. He was a viciously angry deity who was so evil that the only way to appease him was by child sacrifices. He was depicted by a massive bronze idol. It was hollow, and engineered to serve as a fire pit. It would be heated like a furnace, and newborn infants would be cast into the flames as a sacrifice. The Old Testament portrays the ritual slaughter of infants as the most grotesque of all human evils.
Somewhere on that spectrum from apathy to vicious hostility are all the gods of the world. Not one of them is a Savior like Yahweh. Unlike all of them, He is compassionate, merciful, tenderhearted, filled with lovingkindness and eager to save people. That lesson was built into the meaning of Passover, the Exodus, the promised Messiah, and all the priestly and sacrificial liturgies.
The psalms are full of this truth: “The Lord is gracious and merciful; slow to anger and great in lovingkindness. The Lord is good to all, and His mercies are over all His works” (Psalm 145:8–9). “For You, Lord, are good, and ready to forgive, and abundant in lovingkindness to all who call upon You.” (Psalm 86:5). “For the Lord is good; His lovingkindness is everlasting and His faithfulness to all generations” (Psalm 100:5). Each of the 26 verses in Psalm 136 ends with the phrase, “For His lovingkindness is everlasting.”
Notice how often, when the subject is God’s mercy, the Bible stresses His faithfulness and immutability. Indeed, God—as Savior of His people—is the one true constant in all the universe. This is why He redeems His people rather than summarily destroying them when they sin: “For I, the Lord, do not change; therefore you, O sons of Jacob, are not consumed” (Malachi 3:6).
His wrath against sin is real, but it does not provoke Him to alter His Word, revise His will, revoke His promises, or change His mind: “God is not a man, that He should lie, nor a son of man, that He should repent; has He said, and will He not do it? Or has He spoken, and will He not make it good?” (Numbers 23:19).
The necessary implication of God’s immutability is that He is not subject to shifting moods, flashes of temper, fluctuating dispositions, or seasons of despondency. In theological terms, God is impassible. That means He cannot be moved by involuntary emotions, suffering, pain, or injury. In the words of the Westminster Confession of Faith (2.1), God is “infinite in being and perfection, a most pure spirit, invisible, without body, parts, or passions.”
But does that mean that God is utterly unfeeling and devoid of affections? As we’ve already seen, Scripture plainly states that is absolutely not the case. But we are still left with the question of how God can be both impassable and compassionate? And we’ll consider that next time.
(Adapted from None Other)