The other day, I was listening to a radio news program while driving. The program mentioned how the outgoing governor of Mississippi, Haley Barbour, had pardoned some 200 people convicted of crimes. In a sound clip, Gov. Barbour commented that many of these people he pardoned had earned his trust by working faithfully at the governor’s mansion. He also mentioned that his actions were motivated by the Christian principle of forgiveness; everyone, he said, deserves a second chance.
You may or may not agree with his reasoning, but that’s not the issue that strikes me today. The news program host then turned to a political commentator and asked her what she thought about Gov. Barbour’s application of religion to politics. The political commentator’s response went something like this (a paraphrase, not a quote):
“I am not an expert on religion, but I have heard many people refer to the differences between the Old Testament version of God and the New Testament version of God. The former is more about justice and punishment, while the latter is more about love and forgiveness. The public conflict about Gov. Barbour’s pardons seems to reflect these differences.”
Friends, as biblical Christians, we must affirm this truth: there are not two versions of God in the Bible. God is one (Deuteronomy 6:4). The Lord does not change (Malachi 3:6). Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever (Hebrews 13:8). While God may change his mind from time to time (Jeremiah 26:19, among others), his essential character remains the same throughout all history.
It is a mistake to say that the Old Testament God is different than the New Testament Jesus. That idea damages the truth that in Jesus the fullness of God dwells in bodily form (Colossians 1:19). It is not helpful to call the OT God judgmental and the NT Jesus forgiving, because then you can allow yourself to pick which one you want to believe in, depending on your circumstances.
Let us remember that the OT portrays God as forgiving (Jonah 3) and the NT portrays God as the ultimate judge (Romans 2:12-16). God forgives and judges; this is his nature.
When we think about whether governors claiming Christian motives should pardon convicted criminals, we must resist the urge to appeal either to the “Old Testament God” or to the “New Testament Jesus.” Issues surrounding conviction and forgiveness are much more complicated than we often make them.
My advice? Practice obedience to God; speak the truth about his righteousness and justice; rehearse his forgiveness as often as possible. And perhaps we should be more generous and understanding with our politicians and media commentators alike!