When you sin, what does God think? When you blow it, how does he see you? How does he respond?
We cannot answer these questions based on feelings, for as 1 John says our hearts will often condemn us when the Bible says otherwise. So setting aside our own feelings of guilt and shame for a moment, how do the Scriptures describe the way God responds to us in our sin?
Often the Bible gives us metaphors to understand the way God relates to us. He paints vivid pictures of things that are common and familiar to us to help us understand things that are otherwise unknown and intangible to us, finite creatures. So what metaphors do the Scriptures use for the way God relates to us in our sin? There are plenty to choose from. For those who are not part of God’s people, the language of the courtroom is used, with God as Judge and the sinner as law-breaker. But for those who believe in Christ and have been pardoned and justified, the metaphor of Judge no longer applies. I repeat, for the Christian, the metaphors of Judge and law-breaker no longer apply, since Christ was condemned for us, and we have been acquitted and justified by his righteousness.
The gospel changes the metaphor into something radically different. For one, it becomes familial, that of Father and child. This language clearly grows out of our adoption in Christ as sons and daughters. So, using these terms, how does he relate to us when we sin as children? As a loving Father, he disciplines the children he loves, out of concern for their well-being and maturity. Some of the most moving language of God’s relation to our sin is put in these terms. Hosea 11 envisions God as Father teaching us to walk as an infant, but then goes on to say that we use those legs to run away from him. Proverbs 3 speaks of God as a Father who disciplines us, but encourages us that his discipline is not proof of our rejection, but proof of his delight and of our legitimacy as sons and daughters. And how can we forget Jesus’ parable of the Prodigal Son, where the Father graciously runs to and embraces his child “who was lost and now is found?”
But that is not the only metaphor the Bible uses to describe the way God relates to us as sinners, nor is it meant to be, for metaphors are always imperfect and incomplete when applied to a holy God. The Bible also uses another kind of language to speak from a different angle about God’s relation to us in our sin: the language of marriage.
Using the marital metaphor, God is Husband and his people are his bride. Even though we commonly hear this language from the pulpit and from the wedding altar, it is rarely applied to the relationship of God to his people when they sin. But the Scriptures do so frequently. So then, if God disciplines his children when they sin, what does he do when his bride sins against him? He jealously pursues her.
Perhaps this metaphor is not often used in this way because it has the possibility of making God look weak and needy. But God does not jealously pursue us because he needs us, but because he wants us. He is not trying to fill up a hole in his heart, but a hole in ours. And ultimately, it is his jealousy for seeing his glory displayed through his bride that propels him towards us. Still, the truth remains that God jealously pursues his people when they sin, like a husband pursues his wife whose heart is wandering away from him.
The Old Testament has an entire book on the subject: Hosea. As a whole, Hosea shows us that our sin is not simply the breaking of a Judge’s law, but the breaking of a Husband’s heart. In other words, our sin is far more personal in nature than the breaking of a law, which is why Hosea uses the metaphor of spiritual “adultery” rather than idolatry. Idolatry can be an elusive concept, being spiritual in nature, so God puts it in language we can understand: adultery.
Hosea displays God’s jealous pursuit of us through the prophet Hosea’s jealous pursuit of his wife Gomer, who is living with another lover. She clearly broke the marriage covenant. She has personally hurt Hosea and has publically humiliated him. And yet God says this to him, “Go, show your love to your wife again, though she is loved by another man and is an adulteress. Love her as the Lord loves the Israelites, though they turn to other gods” (3:1). We see here not only the personal nature of our sin, but the personal nature of his grace. God is more than a Law-giver pardoning a criminal. He is even more than a Father disciplining a child. He is a Husband in pursuit of his bride, graciously calling her away from her lover’s arms. He is a Husband who pays whatever cost is necessary to buy back his wife from the brothel where her false lover has left her (3:2).
So what are the implications of this marital metaphor for us today? In adding this new language of husband and wife, we are rescued from some of the misunderstandings other imperfect metaphors might lead to, misunderstandings that strike at the heart of what we believe. I’ll give two examples.
First, ask yourself, “What is the purpose of the gospel?” Thinking in terms of Judge / law-breaker, we might think that the main purpose of the gospel is simply a cleansing of the guilty conscience, a “second chance” at life, or a means of keeping us from eternal punishment. But what is missing from that? God! Using the Husband / wife metaphor, the purpose of the gospel is that it restores you to your Husband! In other words, the point of the gospel is not simply the benefits of a clean conscience or a hopeful outlook on the future; the point is that it brings you to God and God to you!
John Piper, in his book God is the Gospel, gives the analogy of a husband who has made his wife angry. She has her back turned to him, hurt, distant. In that situation, what is the point of seeking forgiveness? Not so that the husband can feel better about what he did wrong. No! The man wants his wife’s forgiveness because he wants his wife back! He wants to see her face, talk to her, hold her. God’s purpose in forgiving us is the same: it’s not so that we feel better about our sin, it’s so that there is no longer anything separating us from knowing one another. Do you see how this metaphor makes the gospel more about Him, rather than only about us?
Likewise, ask yourself, “Why does God want us to be holy?” Using the Father / child metaphor, you may answer that our holiness is a way of honoring our Father whom we trust (which is right and good!). But unfortunately it is more often misunderstood as the exasperating demand of a Father whose love depends on our perfection. Protecting us from such a misunderstanding, in the Husband / wife metaphor, God calls us to holiness because he wants our hearts. He doesn’t just want your obedience, he wants you! And so our turning towards him in repentance becomes a way of expressing our heart’s desire for Him more than earthly treasures. Obedience becomes a way of showing our love for him, not a way of earning his love.
So in sum, as you find yourself aimlessly wandering away from God to false loves, remember God is not only the Father who lovingly disciplines you, but the Husband who jealously pursues you, saying, “Come back to me, my beloved. Come back to me.” In response, say with your repentance, “I’m on my way.” And say with your obedience, “There’s nothing on earth I desire but You.” In other words, respond to his grace, not by giving him reluctant obedience, but by giving him yourself.