In his 1937 landmark book, The Kingdom of God in America, Richard Niebuhr memorably described the weakened message of the church in his day as follows: “A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.” Tragically, Niebuhr’s devastating critique could easily be said today of evangelical Christianity. Who has lost sight more of the depth of human sin, the certainty of God’s judgment and the call to repentance than today’s populistic, evangelical churches? Have you noticed how the prayers of repentance and confession have dropped out of the order of services in many churches? Have you noticed the quiet re-writing of some of the older hymns to drop out references to wrath, repentance and judgment? Thankfully, there is a growing realization that, in our attempt to stay at the cultural center of consensus (rather than the prophetic margins) we have inadvertently participated in an obscuring of the gospel.
No where is this problem more evident than how the phrase, “the love of God” is used today. So much of the biblical meaning has been squeezed out to comply with modern sensibilities. The word “love” is used in our society for everything from “I love chocolate cake” to “I love that movie” to “for God so loved the world that he gave His only Son.” The ancient Greeks, as you know, had four words for love: eros (erotic love), philia (devoted friendship), storge (parental affection towards children), and agápe (God’s love/ 1 Cor. 13 type love). Each of these words have nuances of meaning and are used in a variety of ways in the New Testament. But, it remains instructive. When we say we ‘love our children’ most understand that this involves a wide range of responses and responsibilities which cannot be understood in merely emotive ways (though it would not exclude this). When we love our children it involves, among others, acts of compassion towards them, learning to listen, honest truth telling, wise instruction, empathy when they are hurting, forbearing patience, loving discipline, the setting of boundaries, and so forth. To neglect any of these would not be expressive of the full range of what it means to love. This is, likewise, true in our relationship with God. It is misguided, for example, to insist that God’s love towards us does not, at times, involve his disciplining us for our own good. God has given us moral boundaries, not because He is a tyrannical kill-joy, but because he longs for us to know the deepest joy of His design. In fact, God is so committed in his covenant-love toward us that He sometimes opposes us in our own inclinations, and deeds, and ideas as to what we think is right because His love is a holy love.
In today’s morally vacuous climate, we can easily become influenced by sentimental concepts of love which precludes his righteous judgment, or his loving discipline. However, one of the surest signs of God’s love for us is that, like a good parent, He disciplines us, sets moral boundaries, makes judgments according to his revealed will, and so forth. Sometimes His “discipline” and “truth telling” can really hurt and make us want to flee in the opposite direction. However, we know from Scripture that “no discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it” (Hebrews 12:11). Paul says that “when we are judged by the Lord, we are disciplined so that we may not be condemned along with the world” (1 Cor. 11:32).