What Our Sins Evoke
It is probably impossible to conceive of the horror of hell and of the ferocity of retributive justice and righteous wrath that will sweep over those found on the last day to be out of Christ. Perhaps a word like ferocity here makes it sound as if God’s wrath will be uncontrolled or blown out of proportion. But there is nothing uncontrolled or disproportionate in God.
The reason we feel as if divine wrath can easily be overstated is that we do not feel the true weight of sin. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, reflecting on this, said:
You will never make yourself feel that you are a sinner, because there is a mechanism in you as a result of sin that will always be defending you against every accusation. We are all on very good terms with ourselves, and we can always put up a good case for ourselves. Even if we try to make ourselves feel that we are sinners, we will never do it. There is only one way to know that we are sinners, and that is to have some dim, glimmering conception of God.1
In other words, we don’t feel the weight of our sin because of: our sin. If we saw with deeper clarity just how insidious and pervasive and revolting sin is—and, as Lloyd-Jones suggests above, we can see this only as we see the beauty and holiness of God— we would know that human evil calls for an intensity of judgment of divine proportion. Even someone with such a profound sense of the loving heart of Christ as Thomas Goodwin has no trouble likewise asserting that if “his wrath against sin was the fire,” then “all earthly bellows would . . . not have been able to make the furnace hot enough.”2
And just as we can hardly fathom the divine ferocity awaiting those out of Christ, it is equally true that we can hardly fathom the divine tenderness already resting now on those in Christ. We might feel a little bashful or uncomfortable or even guilty in emphasizing God’s tenderness as intensively as his wrath. But the Bible feels no such discomfort. Consider Romans 5:20: “Where sin increased, grace abounded all the more.” The guilt and shame of those in Christ is ever outstripped by his abounding grace. When we feel as if our thoughts, words, and deeds are diminishing God’s grace toward us, those sins and failures are in fact causing it to surge forward all the more.
A Profound Mystery
But let’s press into this inviolable principle in the economy of the gospel. We’ve been speaking of God’s grace and the way it is drawn out always to match abundantly the need for it. But there is, purely speaking, no such “thing” as grace. That’s Roman Catholic theology, in which grace is a kind of stockpiled treasure that can be accessed through various carefully controlled means. But the grace of God comes to us no more and no less than Jesus Christ comes to us. In the biblical gospel we are not given a thing; we are given a person.
Let’s drill in even deeper. What are we given when we are given Christ? More acutely, if we can speak of grace as always being drawn out in our sin but as coming to us only in Christ himself, then we are confronted with a vital aspect of who Christ is—a biblical aspect that the Puritans loved to reflect on: when we sin, the very heart of Christ is drawn out to us.
This may cause some of us to cringe. If Christ is perfectly holy, must he not necessarily withdraw from sin?
Here we enter into one of the profoundest mysteries of who God in Christ is. Not only are holiness and sinfulness mutually exclusive, but Christ, being perfectly holy, knows and feels the horror and weight of sin more deeply than any of us sinful ones could—just as the purer a man’s heart, the more horrified he is at the thought of his neighbors being robbed or abused. Conversely, the more corrupt one’s heart, the less one is affected by the evils all around.
Carry the analogy a little further. Just as the purer a heart, the more horrified at evil, so also the purer a heart, the more it is naturally drawn out to help and relieve and protect and comfort, whereas a corrupt heart sits still, indifferent. So with Christ. His holiness finds evil revolting, more revolting than any of us ever could feel. But it is that very holiness that also draws his heart out to help and relieve and protect and comfort. Again we must bear in mind the all-crucial distinction between those not in Christ and those in Christ. For those who do not belong to him, sins evoke holy wrath. How could a morally serious God respond otherwise? But to those who do belong to him, sins evoke holy longing, holy love, holy tenderness. In the key text on divine holiness (Isa. 6:1–8), that holiness (Isa. 6:3) flows naturally and immediately into forgiveness and mercy (Isa. 6:7).
Here’s how Goodwin explains it as he brings to a close his book The Heart of Christ with a series of concluding applications. Reflecting on the “consolations and encouragements” that are ours in light of Christ himself feeling pain in our own sins and sufferings, he writes:
There is comfort concerning such infirmities, in that your very sins move him to pity more than to anger. . . . For he suffers with us under our infirmities, and by infirmities are meant sins, as well as other miseries. . . . Christ takes part with you, and is so far from being provoked against you, as all his anger is turned upon your sin to ruin it; yes, his pity is increased the more towards you, even as the heart of a father is to a child that has some loathsome disease, or as one is to a member of his body that has leprosy, he hates not the member, for it is his flesh, but the disease, and that provokes him to pity the part affected the more. What shall not make for us,3 when our sins, that are both against Christ and us, shall be turned as motives to him to pity us the more?
The greater the misery is, the more is the pity when the party is beloved. Now of all miseries, sin is the greatest; and while you look at it as such, Christ will look upon it as such also. And he, loving your persons, and hating only the sin, his hatred shall all fall, and that only upon the sin, to free you of it by its ruin and destruction, but his affections shall be the more drawn out to you; and this as much when you lie under sin as under any other affliction. Therefore fear not.4
What is Goodwin saying here? If you are part of Christ’s own body, your sins evoke his deepest heart, his compassion and pity. He “takes part with you”—that is, he’s on your side. He sides with you against your sin, not against you because of your sin. He hates sin. But he loves you. We understand this, says Goodwin, when we consider the hatred a father has against a terrible disease afflicting his child—the father hates the disease while loving the child. Indeed, at some level the presence of the disease draws out his heart to his child all the more.
This is not to ignore the disciplinary side of Christ’s care for his people. The Bible clearly teaches that our sins draw forth the discipline of Christ (e.g., Heb. 12:1–11). He would not truly love us if that were not true. But even this is a reflection of his great heart for us. When a body part has been injured, it requires the pain and labor of physical therapy. But that physical therapy is not punitive; it is intended to bring healing. It is out of care for that limb that the physical therapy is assigned.
- Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Seeking the Face of God: Nine Reflections on the Psalm (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2005), 34.
- Thomas Goodwin, Of Gospel Holiness in the Heart and Life, in The Works of Thomas Goodwin, 12 vols. (repr., Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heritage, 2006), 7:194.
- That is, what shall not be turned to our advantage and welfare.
- Thomas Goodwin, The Heart of Christ (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 2011), 155–56.