I have always enjoyed a slice of bread and butter, preferably with a generous spreading of homemade jam. This was a staple of my childhood years, but like many children I did not like eating the crusts. They were hard to chew, and a bit dry, so I did my best to leave them, eating only the softer bread from the middle. During one special tea-time I remember craftily hiding the crusts under the table, thinking that no-one would find them. Sadly my crime was soon discovered, to the amusement of my whole family, and my own deep embarrassment.
Many adults also dislike crusts. If you go out for afternoon tea at a fancy hotel they will give you sandwiches, but with the crust removed. Refined people, it seems, prefer not to eat the crust, so they are cut off in advance so no-one is tempted to cast then under the table! Nowadays though, the crust for me is an enjoyable part of eating bread. It seems to give it strength and body. And, if my late mother is to be believed, makes my hair curl.
But why am I telling you all this? Because of the common tendency nowadays to choose to believe only the more palatable parts of the Bible (the soft bits), and to reject the harder truths (the crusts).
Any why am I saying this now? Because of something I read in my daily Bible notes this morning. It was a comment on the words of Jesus where he says, “The one who believes and is baptised will be saved; but the one who does not believe will be condemned (Mark 16:16).” The writer tried to water down this challenging saying of Jesus, prefacing her remarks with a striking statement – ‘But those of us who believe in a God of love…’
Well, don’t all Christians believe in a God of love? I have personally never met one who didn’t, so distinguishing between those who do, and those who don’t, can’t be her meaning. I think she may be saying, ‘those of us who believe that God is exclusively a God of love’, as if love is the main and only characteristic of God. It is a view that is increasingly common, and underpins the thinking of many Christians these days, but it is one that is disturbingly and dangerously inaccurate.
Yes, God is a God of love. The apostle John, a man so full of the love of God, twice tells us clearly: “God is love” (1John 4:8 and 16). This is why we know him to be merciful, compassionate and gracious. However the same apostle also gave us another definition of God when he says, ‘God is light; in him is no darkness at all.”(1John 1:5) This is why we know him to be holy, just and true.
What this means is that God in his essential being is both loving and holy. His love is always holy, and his holiness is always loving. This is the basic nature of the God we worship, and love and holiness are perfectly integrated within his character. It is why the cross was necessary. Holiness requires sin to be judged, but love requires there to be a way that makes salvation possible. At Calvary love and holiness flow together in perfect harmony. We must not separate these twin definitions in our thinking about God or we will end up with a distorted image, a God of our own making.
It may be more palatable to modern minds to focus only on the comforting aspects of God, but that is to childishly eat the bread and discard the crust. A true understanding of God allows him to be who he is, both holy and loving, in everything he does. Such a God provides a way of salvation for us, and offers it freely to us; but we are free to reject it, and to take the consequences. In that sense we condemn ourselves.