New Testament

Ask Heather: Why does God seem so different between the OT and the NT?

September 19, 2023

Reconciling God's Wrath and Love: Understanding God in Both the Old and New Testaments


Today, I’m diving into an intriguing and challenging question from Kim, a thoughtful reader who’s puzzled about how God seems to have two totally different personalities in the Old and New Testaments. Here’s her original question:

One thing I wish I understood about the Bible is how God seems so different in the old testament vs the new testament. The old testament shows God’s punitive side and can at times, be gruesome. In sharp contrast the New Testament has no punishment, rather only love and forgiveness. I know the answer is Jesus, but if God is Jesus and Jesus is God, why is He so different?

Kim, you’re not alone; this is a question that tugs at the hearts of many believers and seekers alike.

You’re right to think the answer lies somewhere in the mystery of Jesus Christ, and today, we’ll venture into this topic to understand the unified nature of God. Stick around, because by the end, you’ll have a richer, more nuanced understanding of God’s multi-faceted character, which includes both love and judgment.

The ‘Problem’ of God’s Different Sides

In your question, you mentioned the punitive character of God in the Old Testament. And you’re right, there are a lot of Old Testament passages devoted to God’s wrath and judgment. This month in particular, we have been reading through Ezekiel in my No Dusty Bibles community and I’m going to be honest with you: it’s a wild ride, some of which is hard to stomach.

Written during a time when his people were exiled and seemingly forsaken, Ezekiel’s prophetic voice teaches us that even in the darkest moments, God is Sovereign, His Word is unwavering, and His kingdom will ultimately triumph. But the path to hope can be disconcerting as God’s wrath is on display. The take home message is this: God is Sovereign and He will judge those who turn away from Him.

So let’s consider God as judge for a moment.

God as a Judge

The first thing we need to acknowledge is that God as a Judge is not a side character in the Bible; it’s a central attribute of who He is. In both the Old and the New Testaments, He rightly judges between good and evil. And this is…good news! This reality reflects God’s perfection. But even more, it grants us an opportunity to fully trust His character. We would not trust a modern judge that doled out sentences haphazardly, convicting some but letting others that are also guilty walk free. We can trust God’s judgment because His way is perfect and fair, even as we consider His wrath.  

Why God’s Wrath is Good

The word wrath often gets a bad rap, but did you know that wrath is actually a good and true attribute for God to have? God’s wrath is not cruel or vindictive. Rather, God’s wrath is fair, just, and absolutely aligned with His character of goodness. I really like how my pastor, Randy Mann, puts it: “God’s wrath is the assurance that He will not let sin remain and evil prevail.”

To fully understand God’s wrath, we must understand the whole of His character. God is not only a God of love but also a God of justice, and these are not opposing attributes but facets of the same Sovereign God. 

Wrath Deserves Discussion

We often tiptoe around talking about God’s wrath, especially when we’re focused on His love and grace. But guess what? The New Testament is not devoid of talk about God’s judgment. It’s there, and ignoring it doesn’t change the narrative. In fact, let’s consider the following passages together:

• Romans 2:5-6: But because of your stubbornness and your unrepentant heart, you are storing up wrath against yourself for the day of God’s wrath, when his righteous judgment will be revealed. God “will repay each person according to what they have done.”

• John 5:24-25: “Very truly I tell you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be judged but has crossed over from death to life. Very truly I tell you, a time is coming and has now come when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God and those who hear will live.

• Matthew 12:36-37: But I tell you that everyone will have to give account on the day of judgment for every empty word they have spoken. For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned.

• 2 Thessalonians 1:5-10All this is evidence that God’s judgment is right, and as a result you will be counted worthy of the kingdom of God, for which you are suffering. God is just: He will pay back trouble to those who trouble you and give relief to you who are troubled, and to us as well. This will happen when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven in blazing fire with his powerful angels. He will punish those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. They will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might on the day he comes to be glorified in his holy people and to be marveled at among all those who have believed. This includes you, because you believed our testimony to you.

These are just a handful of passages from the New Testament that make it clear: judgment is coming for all of humanity. The final day of judgment, God’s ultimate judgment of sinful mankind, just hasn’t happened yet.

But, Jesus rescues us from judgment, right? 

Indeed He does. So let’s see if we can make sense of how God’s judgment in the Old Testament and Christ’s offer of salvation in the New Testament are connected.

Bridging the Old and New: Reconciling God’s Wrath with the Hope of Christ

The topic of God’s wrath and the hope of Christ may seem like polar opposites, but they actually offer a cohesive understanding of God’s character and His plan for humanity.

1. The Justification for Wrath: One cannot fully grasp the gravity of Christ’s sacrifice without understanding the wrath that it satisfies. God’s wrath isn’t an outburst of anger but a just response to sin, which violates His holiness. When we grasp the severity of God’s wrath, we see the Cross as not just an event but a divine necessity to satisfy God’s justice.

2. A Relational God: Understanding God’s wrath helps us appreciate His love more deeply. It might sound paradoxical, but a God indifferent to sin would be a God indifferent to justice and, consequently, indifferent to us. His wrath against sin is the flip side of His passionate love for people, a love so immense that He provided an escape from that wrath through Jesus Christ.

3. Eternal Implications: Often, we focus on the hope Christ offers us today: peace, guidance, and spiritual blessings. Yet, the ultimate hope lies in our eternal destiny. Christ’s sacrifice doesn’t just alter our current spiritual state; it changes our eternal standing before a God of wrath, making reconciliation to God and eternal life with Him possible.

By understanding God’s wrath through the lens of His holistic character, we find not a contradiction but a beautiful harmony that magnifies the hope we have in Jesus Christ.

The Final Verdict: Jesus as Savior and Judge

You’re right, Kim, the answer to this complex question lies in Jesus.

Jesus embodies both the law and the gospel by ultimately serving as both Judge and Savior. As we approach Him, we find not just a Judge, but also a Savior offering forgiveness, hope, grace, and love. The question of which one He will be to us lies in our hands.

In the words of J.I. Packer, “Call on the coming Judge to be your present Savior. As Judge, he is the law, but as Savior he is the gospel. Run from him now, and you will meet him as Judge then – and without hope. Seek him now, and you will find him (for “he that seeketh findeth”), and you will then discover that you are looking forward to that future meeting with joy, knowing that there is now ‘no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus’ (Romans 8:1).”

I hope this exploration helps you reconcile the seemingly contrasting portrayals of God in the Old and New Testaments. This is a hefty topic and I’ve enjoyed studying it and considering how understanding God’s wrath creates a deeper reverence for Him in my heart. 

Here are some key takeaways of what I’ve share with you today:

• God as Judge is not an ‘optional’ attribute; it’s at the core of who He is.

• God’s wrath is not cruel but just and aligned with His nature.

• The New Testament is not silent about judgment; it’s a crucial part of God’s character.

• Understanding God’s character in its entirety gives us a fuller picture of His love, grace, and also His justice.

This post contains affiliate links, which means that at no additional cost to you, I may receive a small commission if you click on and/or purchase from one of the product links. Affiliate links help to “keep the lights on” at The Rescued Letters and I only recommend products that I personally use or are from companies that I know and trust. I really appreciate your support in this way. You can read my full disclosure policy here.

Knowing God J.I. Packer

Have questions for our next Ask Heather series? Post a comment here and we’ll add it to the list. If your question wasn’t answered today, don’t worry – we’ll get to it soon!

Until next time, I’m rooting for you. Always.


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