Love or Justice?

Emilie Bouvier, "Springing"(Cowling Arboretum; Northfield, Minn.)Image © Luther Seminary Fine Arts Collection, St. Paul, Minn.

Dear Working Preacher,

Sometimes you just have to choose. The biblical witness is varied, even complex, and so the interpreter — and preacher — has to make choices. Today’s incredibly familiar passage invites us to make just such a choice. So which will it be: love or justice?

I’m talking about God, of course. And the choice I’m describing is between understanding — and preaching — God primarily as a God of justice or a God of love. Now, I can guess what you’re thinking: this seems like a choice we shouldn’t have to make. And to some degree you’re right. That’s where the “primarily” comes in. Is God primarily a God of love or primarily a God of justice?

We need to be careful, of course, not to separate these two completely from each other. Justice, at its best, flows from a sense of love, and love demands justice. This is why as much as I emphasize God’s love, I must also talk about God’s judgment: judgment is the flip side of justice, lose the one and you’ve lost the other.

But still the question remains: Is God primarily a God of love or justice? Today’s familiar passage from John brings it again to the fore. Two things in particular are important to note. 1) God’s dominant stance toward humanity — indeed, the whole world (kosmos in the Greek) — is one of love. In fact, given that almost everywhere else in John “world” is used negatively — to refer to an entity that is at enmity with God (see John 17:14-18) — it’s rather remarkable in 3:16 to find Jesus profess that God loves this God-hating world so much that God is willing to give God’s only Son.

2) There is judgment in this passage, in the oft-overlooked verses that follow the world’s most famous Bible verse. But notice the character of this judgment: it is entirely passive, prosecuted not by God but induced by our reaction to the light of Christ. In John, as it turns out, judgment is disclosed in and through the crisis that is created when we are encountered by the living Christ and either are drawn to the light to have our deeds exposed and forgiven that we may be embraced by God’s love or flee the light in our fear and brokenness.

Why does all this matter? Because while love and justice cannot be separated, neither can they be held as equals — this despite all professions to the contrary. Either we believe that God is ultimately a God of justice — and so suspends love for God’s son — and all creation — in that God’s justice must be satisfied before God can be truly loving to fallen humanity (as in the penal subsitutionary theory of atonement in all of its various forms), or God suspends judgment of humanity out of love. All of our talk about God will ultimately come back to a core belief about God’s primary character, and how you land on that decision will shape all of your preaching.

A year ago Rob Bell came out with his controversial Love Wins. Beyond the book itself — provocative and interesting as Bell’s other work, but not exactly land breaking — it’s been fascinating to watch the reactions to it, especially by those who defend the penal substitutionary theory of atonement. In response to the popularity of Bell’s book, for instance, the Southern Baptism Convention actually passed a resolution to affirm the reality of hell as a place of eternal physical torment. That’s right. It wasn’t enough to affirm hell as separation from God or eternal death but to make sure we know it’s a place where unrepentant sinners will experience torment forever.

To put the question another way: how does God deal with sin? Does God demand punishment (whether of us or Jesus) for sin, or does God forgive sin? These aren’t the same — in fact, to say that God is able to forgive us because God punished Jesus in our place is not forgiveness at all; it’s just someone else making payment. Interestingly, the Apostle Paul says that God proves God’s justice/righteousness precisely by declaring us righteous — that is, forgiving us — by grace (Rom. 3:21-26).

So where will you come down, Working Preacher? Of course we want to preach both God’s love and God’s justice, announcing both God’s promises and God’s judgments. We can do no less. But what will you emphasize, knowing that your choice will shape not only your preaching but also your prayers, your confessions of sin and of faith, your understanding of the atonement and, ultimately, your picture of God.

You’ve got a lot to do this week, Working Preacher. I know that. But amid all the other things that vie for your attention in the days ahead, I invite you to give some thought to this passage from John, to your beliefs about God’s primary character, and to considering what your people most need to hear. Thanks for your good work. In the world and time we live in, it’s never been more important.

Yours in Christ,