Mother asks Jennifer, ‘Who broke the china?’ Jennifer replies that David and Peter did. She tells the truth. However, she does not say that Joan and Gail did so as well. She tells the truth, but not the whole truth; and mother is deceived. This misunderstanding may have wide repercussions. So with us in our understanding of scripture. We have to consider the whole truth in order to get the complete picture.
Let us consider the character of God. This is the foundation truth of all. In scripture we have revealed various attributes and characteristics of God. Some of these may appear contradictory, but they are in fact complementary. We must not emphasize some at the expense of others, else we have a false picture and may therefore misrepresent Him.
Set out below are some of these characteristics in a way that will demonstrate the point just made:
God is holy and He is love, 1 Pet. 1. 16; 1 John 4. 8;
God is righteous and He is merciful, Ps. 9. 4; 11. 7; 13. 5; 138. 2, 8;
God is a just God and a Saviour, Isa. 45. 21;
The Son incarnate was ‘full of grace and truth’, John 1. 14.
God cannot act contrary to Himself, to His own nature. He is unchangeable, ‘I am who I am’. It is impossible for Him to act unrighteously; and equally impossible for Him to act unmercifully. He always is holy and always loving. He always remembers mercy in wrath, Hab. 3. 2.
The cross of the Lord Jesus illustrates these points very clearly. Simultaneously, it is an exhibition of the love of God and the righteousness of God. It is the greatest demonstration of God’s grace and also His justice. The answer to the question as to why Christ died must include all these aspects, otherwise we have only part of an explanation of it; we shall also have an unbalanced understanding.
Let us also consider God acting in salvation, another tremendously important truth. Again, we need to have a balanced understanding; one that sees and holds together both sides of the issue. In it we see what are often termed God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility. Let us set forth a few relevant scriptures.
The Lord speaks of the Father’s will and those who will be raised up at the last day in this way, ‘Of all which he hath given me’ and, ‘Every one which seeth the Son, and believeth on him’, John 6. 39-40. Similar terms are used a few verses later, ‘No man can come to me except the Father … draw him’ and, ‘Every man … that hath heard, and hath learned of the Father cometh to me’, John 6. 44-45. We may also note the Father’s giving and man’s seeing and believing; the Father drawing and men learning and coming.
The same truth is seen in the types. The first bride of scripture, Eve, had no choice in the matter of a husband, but the second one, Rebekah, did, being asked, ‘Wilt thou go with this man?’ Gen. 2. 22; 24. 58.
As the gospel is taken to the Gentiles, we find that the first convert in Europe, Lydia, has her heart opened by the Lord, whilst the second one asks, ‘What must I do to be saved?’ and is then told what to do, Acts 16. 14; Acts 16. 30-31. In these instances we note each time God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility.
Other relevant scriptures would include the Lord’s words as He approached Jerusalem; He says, ‘I would … you would not’, Matt. 23. 37; and His comment to the Jewish leaders, ‘you will not come to me that you might have life’, John 5. 40. If we emphasize one aspect and ignore or down play the other, we end up with what C. H. MACKINTOSH called ‘one-sided theology’.
We may not be able to harmonize with our finite minds these seemingly contrary principles, but they are complementary and should be held together.
As a postscript, may I append two further comments. First, nonscriptural expressions may be unscriptural. We need to take care if we are going to use them: for instance, God’s sovereignty, human responsibility, unconditional election, decision for Christ, irresistible grace. Secondly, the more we seek to expound these truths the more likely we are to err in the use of our words and expressions. What may seem true may not be so, as it may not be part of the whole picture. Systematic theologies often explore these issues at some length in a logical and analytical way. However, if they begin with God’s holiness, His love may appear to be secondary, and vice versa. If they begin with God’s sovereignty, the inevitable logic may result in an argument and conclusion that excludes man completely! On the other hand, if they begin with man’s part in salvation, God may appear to be someone simply on our level, made in our image.