The tender heart of God for his people is wonderful news:
In 1983 an American movie directed by Australian Bruce Beresford was released called Tender Mercies. I am not sure if I have actually seen the whole film, but it has to do with a messed-up, bummed-out alcoholic country music singer (played by Robert Duvall) who finds redemption and new life in a conversion to Christianity.
While I will need to track this down and watch it properly, it does tie in with what I want to speak about here. I wish to discuss more on what I have often written about: God and his attributes. Here it is the gentleness and tenderness of God that has my attention.
Let me preface my discussion this way: The Apostle Paul famously told the Ephesians that he did not fail to proclaim to them the full counsel of God (Acts 20:27). He did not leave any bits out. He did not pick and choose certain parts, while ignoring other bits. The fullness of biblical teaching is what he proclaimed to them.
That is what all Christians must seek to do – certainly Christian leaders, pastors, teachers, and so on. We must preach the Bible in its entirety, and not cherry pick some parts of Scripture while playing down or denying other parts. So let me seek to do this very thing.
Yesterday I posted an article on God and judgment. In it I reminded us that Christ is coming back to judge the world, and he has his sickle in the hand for the final harvest. This is the Jesus most people do not want to know about. I looked at Revelation 14 as I discussed this frightful reality, reminding us that all humanity will have to face this: billmuehlenberg.com/2020/08/14/final-judgment-is-good-news/
While all of this is 100 per cent true, it is also fully biblical to speak of the tender mercies of Christ. Indeed, in that article I quoted one commentator who said this: “What an awesome thought! The One who is going to judge us and the world is the One in whose breast beats the heart of true love for mankind. The One who is going to judge you, unbeliever, is the One who loves sinners.”
So we must always proclaim all the truths about the God with whom we have to do: He is fully holy, fully righteous, fully pure, and he fully hates sin. Yet he is also merciful and compassionate and longing to show grace and forgiveness. But it is up to us how we will deal with this. The wrath of God abides on sinners, but if we turn to him in faith and repentance, then we can experience this wonderful mercy of God, this matchless grace.
There would be many passages that speak to his tender mercies and his gentle nature. Even the Old Testament prophets, who speak so much about God’s wrath and judgment, will also run with these wonderful realities of who God is. Here are a few such passages from the prophets.
Isaiah 40:1-2 Comfort, comfort my people, says your God.
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
and cry to her
that her warfare is ended,
that her iniquity is pardoned,
that she has received from the Lord’s hand
double for all her sins.
Isaiah 40:11 He will tend his flock like a shepherd;
he will gather the lambs in his arms;
he will carry them in his bosom,
and gently lead those that are with young.
Isaiah 42:1-3 Behold my servant, whom I uphold,
my chosen, in whom my soul delights;
I have put my Spirit upon him;
he will bring forth justice to the nations.
He will not cry aloud or lift up his voice,
or make it heard in the street;
a bruised reed he will not break,
and a faintly burning wick he will not quench;
he will faithfully bring forth justice.
Jeremiah 31:20 Is Ephraim my dear son?
Is he my darling child?
For as often as I speak against him,
I do remember him still.
Therefore my heart yearns for him;
I will surely have mercy on him,
declares the Lord.
Hosea 11:8 How can I give you up, O Ephraim?
How can I hand you over, O Israel?
How can I make you like Admah?
How can I treat you like Zeboiim?
My heart recoils within me;
my compassion grows warm and tender.
And of course Jesus is often portrayed in the gospels in such terms:
Matthew 11:28-30 Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.
Matthew 23:37 O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!
Many more such texts could be offered here. But let me finish by very briefly mentioning two books that deal specifically with these matters. One of the volumes is brand new while the other one is centuries old.
I refer to Dane Ortlund’s Gentle and Lowly: The Heart of Christ For Sinners and Sufferers (Crossway, 2020), and a book that in good measure it is written about: The Heart of Christ by the great Puritan divine, Thomas Goodwin (Banner of Truth, 1651, 2015).
Goodwin is just one Puritan thinker that Ortlund appeals to, but both write about a theme that we may not always hear about: the grand biblical truth about God’s deep love for his people, and his nearness to them especially as sufferers and as repentant sinners.
All I can do here is offer two quotes from the more recent book, in the hopes of enticing you to get both. I want to more fully examine these volumes in much more detail in the days ahead, but this will have to suffice for now. Ortlund says this in his introduction:
This book on Christ’s heart would not exist if I had not stumbled upon the Puritans and especially Thomas Goodwin. It is Goodwin more than anyone who has opened my eyes to who God in Christ is, most naturally and easily, for fickle sinners. But Goodwin and the others raised in this book such as Sibbes and Bunyan are channels, not sources. The Bible is the source. They’re just showing us with particular clarity and insight what the Bible has been telling us all along about who God actually is.
And he says this in his chapter on “The Emotional Life of Christ”:
Perhaps we feel that to the degree we emphasize Christ’s compassion, we neglect his anger; and to the degree we emphasize his anger, we neglect his compassion. But what we must see is that the two rise and fall together. A compassion-less Christ could never have gotten angry at the injustices all around him, the severity and human barbarity, even that flowing from the religious elite. . . . It is the father who loves his daughter most whose anger rises most fiercely if she is mistreated….
While Christ is a lion to the impenitent, he is a lamb to the penitent—the reduced, the open, the hungry, the desiring, the confessing, the self-effacing. He hates with righteous hatred all that plagues you. Remember that Isaiah 53 speaks of Christ bearing our griefs and carrying our sorrows (v. 4). He wasn’t only punished in our place, experiencing something we never will (condemnation); he also suffered with us, experiencing what we ourselves do (mistreatment). In your grief, he is grieved. In your distress, he is distressed.
Those of you somewhat familiar with my writings may find some familiar themes here. The Isaiah 42 passage I mentioned above of course was the subject of a 1631 classic by Richard Sibbes whom Ortlund just mentioned: The Bruised Reed and Smoking Flax. See my article on this here: billmuehlenberg.com/2015/03/11/a-bruised-reed/
And of course the great Reformed theologian B. B. Warfield (1851-1921) famously wrote the chapter, “The Emotional Life of Our Lord” found in the book The Person and Work of Christ. I spoke to that in an article some years ago: billmuehlenberg.com/2010/03/01/jesus-meek-and-mild-or-conquering-king/
So Ortlund is revisiting some great biblical truths that others have explored at various times and places. I heartily recommend his new book to you. It will be of great help to many believers. We need to always keep in mind not just the holiness of God and his wrath against sin, but his gentleness and tenderness towards those sinners who have turned to him.
Both sets of truths must forever be embraced and celebrated. Thank you Lord for your tender mercies.