As human beings we are very familiar with legal codes and penalties; if we are caught transgressing the law, we can expect to be tried and, if found guilty, to pay a penalty of some sort. We see this in the Old Testament in the Deuteronomic Code: I sin, I am punished, I repent, God forgives me and restores me to his love. Te most revolutionary aspect of the Gospel message is that God still loves us though we are far off: Saul of Tarsus was not repentant, and yet God’s love reached him and he repented and followed God even unto death; unearned Grace saved him, and it is the same Grace, similarly undeserved, which will see us home of we repent and follow God’s precepts.
This runs so counter to our experiences as fallen human beings that we have trouble comprehending it. Jesus asked (Luke 7:42) who would love more, one forgiven a small debt, or one forgiven a large one? As the Word Incarnate he knew that true love stemmed from receiving forgiveness rather than from fear of being punished. It is understandable that so often the Christian message gas been spread in terms of the fear of God, but it is hard to see that as the main message coming from Jesus himself. He offers salvation to all who will receive him and his message, and that message is not based on frightening us, but on enlightening us, not on fear, but on love. I know there are those who have a visceral reaction to the word ‘love’ because of its use to effectively obscure the consequences of not turning to God and repenting. It may well be that there are those who have turned to God because of fear, but we are not presented with any examples in the New Testament of Jesus or the Apostles using such methods.
Punishment does not heal us. It may make us mindful enough to avoid whatever behaviour got us punished, or it may make us cunning enough not to get caught again, but it will not heal us – it will not make us good. Where Scripture talks of the ‘fear of God’ the Greek word ‘phobos’ is better translated as ‘respect’ or ‘awe’. In encouraging us to call God “Father”, Jesus encourages us to think in a way which can help us. So, though it may run counter to some modern child care theories, fathers do set boundaries, and they do so for the sake of their children; there are some things which are bad for children which they would, nonetheless, embrace if allowed (think child, think sweet-shop, think unlimited access to same). But a father who punished his child for an infraction with the threat that they would burn forever unless they behaved would not command ‘awe’ or ‘respect’, he would be someone to be reported to the authorities for child cruelty.
We have free will from God. He wants us to use it to embrace his love for us and to love him back. If we turn away from that offer, if we refuse that free Grace, then we exile ourselves – and in so doing, thwart his will for us which is that he should be all in all to us. In this Advent Season let us not turn away, but tread the road to Bethlehem.