Love and Justice Merged in Hosea

In evangelical circles, I’ve often heard the following explanation for why Jesus had to die: God loves all people, and yet God is also just, so he cannot leave sin unpunished. Therefore, God punished Jesus on the cross for our sins. Because Jesus endured our punishment, we don’t have to worry about God’s wrath, provided that we believe in Jesus. God considers believers to be righteous even though they actually are not, since they are covered with the righteousness of Christ (in Luther’s words, they are “snow covered dung”). At the cross, God was just in that he poured out his wrath on sin, but he was also loving because he let us off the hook.

I suppose I have to believe this to avoid going to hell. And, actually, I do agree with this doctrine on a certain level. I have spoken in favor of it in “But That’s Not Fair!” and A Clean Altar, and I acknowledge that blood atonement is a significant motif in the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament.

But I have questions about it. On the justice side, how does God demonstrate his hatred of sin by punishing an innocent person for the sins of others? And, once a person becomes a Christian, does God not hate his sins anymore, since Jesus has already endured the penalty? Does justification mean that God “kids himself” into thinking that the Christian is righteous, when actually the opposite is the case?

For the last two questions, a lot of evangelicals would answer “Absolutely not!” Some say that God disciplines sinful believers but will still save them after their death (though they will probably not get any rewards). Others contend that believers who habitually sin are on the verge of losing their salvation. And another view states that sinful “Christians” are not real believers in the first place but only think that they are.

But the latter two options only raise other questions. Where is God’s love for the sinful believers? Are we saved by receiving God’s free grace and getting our act together? If Christ paid the debt for sinners, then why would sinful believers get their debt back?

I started my daily quiet time on Hosea a few nights ago, and I can see the tension between God’s justice and God’s love. On the one hand, God passionately loves his people and desires the best for them. On the other hand, he absolutely loathes their sin and doesn’t want to leave it unpunished. Evangelicals are correct to note such a tension throughout Scripture, but, in Hosea, God approaches the issue in a way that differs from the substitutionary atonement. What does God do? He punishes Israel and afterwards restores them. They pay the penalty for their own sins (God’s justice), and God takes them back and blesses them when they learn their lesson (God’s love).

In this model, I can actually see God displaying his anger against sin. I have a harder time finding that when I look at the substitutionary atonement model, since there God is punishing an innocent person to let off the guilty. It’s almost as if God is saying, “Well, I love these people and want them to be saved, but, technically, I cannot just forgive them because there needs to be a penalty. I’ll send Jesus to pay their debt.” Does God really show any righteous indignation in that model? Not really. It’s like he’s trying to find a legal loophole so he can forgive and bless us. In Hosea’s model, however, God says, “I hate sin. I loathe it! I don’t want to see it in my holy land. I will punish the sinners, the objects of my anger. That will teach them a lesson and cleanse the land. But I still love the Israelites because they are my people, so I will restore them after my wrath is over.”

Again, I cannot dismiss the substitutionary atonement, since forgiveness through a bloody sacrifice occurs throughout the Bible. But I wish that its proponents would do a better job explaining how it demonstrates God’s righteous anger against sin. Instead, they often act as if Jesus’ death was something God had to do to uphold order and justice, as if his hands were tied. But the Bible does not speak of God trying to maintain an abstract just order, though he does indeed try to do that. It speaks of “the wrath of God.”

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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