As we seek to know God more in his Word, and as we do theology, we are going to be faced with paradoxes and complementary truths that we will be forced to hold in tension. Consider the doctrine of the Trinity. Our God is one and three. We cannot emphasize his oneness over his threeness or else fall into the error of unitarianism. However, we also cannot emphasize his threeness over his oneness or else become polytheists. According to Scripture, we must reconcile these two truths in our doctrine. So, yes, God is one. And, yes, God is three. He is singular and many. We have one God in three persons—God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Another example of this is found in salvation. God is sovereign and we are responsible. God’s sovereignty in his saving purposes must never be emphasized at the expense of human responsibility. If we do, we fall into fatalism. However, if we emphasize human responsibility with regard to salvation over God’s sovereignty, then we fall into the pit of various heresies depending on how far we exaggerate our role in salvation. The Bible teaches that God is sovereign over us and yet we retain responsibility.
In both of these cases, it can be difficult to hold two apparently contradictory statements together. At first glance, it seems that God cannot be both one and three. Similarly, it seems that God cannot be sovereign if we are responsible (and vice-versa). However, we must uphold what Scripture upholds. We seek to know and understand as much as we can with the purpose of increased knowledge and worship of God. And where we cannot understand, we must submit to the truth of God’s Word. Truth is not dependent on our finite understanding. Paradoxical truths are difficult, yet necessary to uphold. In Ezekiel 11, we see the prophet Ezekiel struggling to uphold one such paradoxical set of truths—God’s judgment and his mercy.
God tells Ezekiel that there was impending judgment about to be unleashed on his people (Ezek. 11:1-12). Ezekiel doesn’t argue against God’s proclamation of judgment, but instead cries out, “Ah, Lord God! Will you make a full end of the remnant of Israel?” (v. 12). However, what Ezekiel struggled to understand was how God could destroy the very people he promised to preserve. He found it difficult to uphold the mercy of God in light of the judgment of God. How could God “by no means clear the guilty” (Ezek. 34:7) and yet at the same time, remain true to his covenant with Israel? Ezekiel knew that God was right to judge Israel with death, but he could not see how this could coincide with God’s promise to preserve his people (Lev. 26:44-45). Can God really preserve Israel and judge them?
The answer God gives is astounding. God answers this apparent predicament with divine intervention. He promises to preserve a remnant of Israel by giving them a new heart. Through the judgment of Israel, God would shower them with grace and mercy through the giving of a new heart of flesh—a heart that will be filled with true love and faith for him (vv. 14-21). It is God, the one who judges, who will intervene to bring about the obedience of his people. God judges and preserves his people.
In the same way, God judges and preserves his people climactically in Christ. On the cross, Jesus died the death that we deserve and he bore the wrath of God against sin and sinners. We are preserved through the judgment of Christ on our behalf. He became sin, so that we might become the righteousness of God (2 Cor. 5:21). However, in order for us to be counted righteous, we need our hearts of stone to be transformed into hearts of flesh (Ezek. 11:19). In order for us to go from being children of wrath to children of God, we need divine intervention. We need God to regenerate our hearts in order for us to exhibit saving faith, or else we will never see the kingdom of God (John 3:3). We need a God of judgment who is also a God of mercy.
May we be humbled by the fact that without God’s intervention, we would remain under his wrath (John 3:36). Oh, but because he is a God who judges and saves, a God who saves through judgment, we can be sure that in his sovereign wisdom, goodness, and grace, those whom he saves through the judgment of Christ, he preserves until the end (Phil. 1:6).
Without God’s regeneration of our dead hearts (Eph. 2:1), we would not be able to trust Christ and would therefore not be united to him. Without union with Christ, we would not be justified, sanctified, or glorified. We would have no hope. All of our hope lies in the regenerating work of the Spirit. Praise God for his wrath-bearing Son who was judged in your place. Praise him for his life-giving Spirit who gives you a new heart that believes and obeys him. Praise him for the glorious paradoxes that magnify his majesty and reveal to us the way of salvation.
Mathew Gilbert (B.A. Boyce College) is Associate Pastor for Children and Preschool at The Church at Trace Crossing in Tupelo, MS. He is a M.Div student at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Mathew is married to his high school sweetheart, Erica. Mathew and Erica live in Tupelo with their son, Jude. You can follow him on Twitter @mat_gilbert.