Is God Holy or Compassionate?

Is God holy or compassionate? Of course the answer is obvious to us. God is both holy and compassionate. How do we know? For one, He tells us: "I am the LORD your God. Consecrate yourselves therefore, and be holy, for I am holy" (Leviticus 11:44). God is holy, 100% pure, without the slightest imperfection or sin. He "lives in unapproachable light" (1 Timothy 6:16). His pure presence there is deadly to all that is not holy.

At the same time, God is compassionate and merciful. God describes Himself as "compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in lovingkindness and truth" (Exodus 34:6). James affirms that "The Lord is full of compassion and is merciful" (James 5:11). "His lovingkindness is everlasting" according to Psalms 106:1, 107:1, 118:1 and 136:1ff.

God not only tells us He is holy and compassionate, He shows us. Jesus felt compassion for the multitudes and healed and fed them (Matthew 14:13-21; Mark 6:33-44). Most profoundly, we see God's holiness and compassion meet together in Jesus on the cross.

While we know in our hearts and minds that God is holy and compassionate, do our actions as members of the human race always agree with what we know? Let me suggest to you that over the past several thousand years people have often tended to go to one extreme or another, emphasizing holiness without compassion or compassion without holiness. These tendencies to extremes have often polarized believers.

In their quest for holiness, some believers have become virtual hermits, cloistered away from suffering crowds who need compassion but are mired in sin. The righteous too often become distant critics of the faults and depravity of humanity. They see others as prone to tolerate wilful sin while neglecting sound doctrine.

On the other hand, some exercise compassion without regard for God's holiness and see no need for His redemption. They see the holiness seekers as legalistic Pharisees. They feel confident that their good works are enough to please God and be assured of a place in His presence forever. From this viewpoint, Jesus to them was not so much a Saviour who died in our place for our sins. Rather, they see Him as a good man who died as an example of personal sacrifice (the moral influence view of the atonement).

How then do we as Godís people find the balance, strength and patience to be holy and compassionate? The answer begins in the very nature of God. Consider the context of Godís words to Moses in Exodus 34:6-7. The Exodus trail had been hard going. On the side of holiness, Moses was on Mount Sinai receiving the Law. Meanwhile, on the side of liberality, tolerance and (com)passion, the people were partying and worshipping the golden calf as a god at the foot of the mountain. In his anger, Moses threw down and shattered the tablets of the Ten Commandments. He punished the people but was left with questions. After all this, he needed to know that he would still have God's favour and know His ways, that God would still consider Israel His people, as "distinguished from all other people," and that He would go with them (33:13-16). On top of this, Moses wanted to see God's glory (33:18).

God assured Moses of His continued presence and responded to his request: "Then the LORD passed by in front of him and proclaimed, 'The LORD, the LORD God, compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in lovingkindness and truth; who keeps lovingkindness for thousands, who forgives iniquity, transgression and sin; yet He will by no means leave the guilty unpunished, visiting the iniquity of fathers on the children and on the grandchildren to the third and fourth generations'" (Exodus 34:6-7). These are simultaneously encouraging and difficult words. Yet they are key words in Scripture through which God reveals His nature, highlighting and balancing His compassion and His justice. They link Godís compassion with His call to holiness and give redemption and justice as a means to it.

This balance is hard for us. Yet ultimately, we mustnít sacrifice truth for compassionate action or vice versa. For the honour of Godís name in the world and for the sake of His gospel reaching others we must be holy and compassionate. We must find the balance to care for others while upholding truth and personal integrity by Godís grace, Word and Spirit. Godís ultimate goal is to make us like Jesus. If we are going to be like God and be "conformed to the image of His Son" (Romans 8:29) we are going to be holy and compassionate. This applies to everyone, including the poor. In his helpful book On Job: God-talk And The Suffering Of The Innocent, Gustavo Gutierrez, who knows poverty firsthand, counsels the oppressed in need of compassion to honour God for who He is and to exercise personal holiness even amidst an absence of justice.

Resolving the tension between holiness and compassion is not an either/or choice, but a both/and necessity. God is calling us, commanding us, to be both holy and compassionate. According to Hebrews 12:14, we are to "pursue peace with all men, and the holiness without which no one will see the Lord." "You shall be holy, for I am holy" (1 Peter 1:16 quotes Leviticus 11:44). Paul wrote: "Therefore, having these promises, beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from all defilement of flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God" (2 Corinthians 7:1 ). God calls us to be compassionate like Him, for "He Himself is kind to ungrateful and evil men" (Luke 6:35). In the next verse, Jesus says, "Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful" (Luke 6:36).

So are we holy and compassionate? Are we pure and always merciful? If we are honest with ourselves, on our own, we cannot make ourselves pure enough to enter God's presence and we pass by opportunities to show His compassion. Yet God requires those who enter His presence to be holy. He cannot ignore sin. He is loving, yet He is just. He must deal with sin because we cannot. Fortunately for us, we see His holiness and His compassion meet at the cross.

From the nature of God comes this profound action of God in history to make us holy and compassionate. The beautiful hymn "Beneath the Cross of Jesus" contains these meaningful words: "O trysting place where heaven's love and heaven's justice meet." A tryst is an agreement between two people, often two people in love, to meet at an appointed time and place. God's compassion and love for us drove Him to meet us at the cross. That was His time and place to satisfy His need for holiness and justice. There and then He offered Jesus' as a sacrifice for our sin to make us holy: "yet He has now reconciled you in His fleshly body through death, in order to present you before Him holy and blameless and beyond reproach" (Colossians 1:22); "And by that will we have been made holy through the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ once for all" (Hebrews 10:10); "He Himself bore our sins in His body on the cross, so that we might die to sin and live to righteousness; for by His wounds you were healed" (1 Peter 2:24). As we are sanctified in our walk with God, "He disciplines us for our good, so that we may share His holiness" (Hebrews 12:10). We must embody both God's holiness and His compassion to do genuine justice to living as examples of the gospel of Jesus' sacrifice so that others may experience God's grace and salvation.

Because Jesus took our place and sacrificed Himself for our sins there at the cross, we are 100% justified before God and we are clothed in His righteousness in Godís eyes. Being 100% justified, however, does not mean we are instantly 100% sanctified and wholly compassionate. This is a life-long journey. Fortunately, when we are united with Christ in baptism, His Spirit's fruit of love and compassion begin to grow in our Hearts. The Spirit of God strives with us so that we can become like Jesus, pure and compassionate. Every moment we exist, we live by His grace. Every day we have opportunities to share His compassion. Every week we have an appointment with God. We meet with Him and His people in the Lord's Supper to experience His love and show our love for Him. We share in Jesus' body and blood shed at the cross where His love and His justice, where His holiness and compassion, meet.

Paul Birston

February 2010©

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