Whenever the love and grace of God is discussed, someone will inevitably invoke Scripture: “For the Lord your God is a consuming fire” (Dt 4:24; cf. Heb 12:29). The metaphor of fire needs to be used carefully, however, as it can easily overwhelm or distort the revelation of the Father’s accessibility in love and affection in and through his Son Jesus Christ. By itself the metaphor of fire intimates that the Father is an impersonal substance that one dare not approach without first putting on asbestos protective gear. This, I believe, is the wrong way to approach our understanding of our heavenly Father. It has had disastrous consequences for both the preaching and communion practices of the Church, in both East and West.
Who is the God of Jesus? He is the Father who goes searching for the one lost sheep, who sweeps the house for the lost coin, who rushes down the road to welcome his returning son, who sends his son to die on the cross for sinners, who justifies the ungodly. In the words of St Isaac the Syrian: “Among all his actions there is none which is not entirely a matter of mercy, love, and compassion: this constitutes the beginning and the end of his dealings with us.”
Those who reject God’s love will inevitably experience the fire of his love as a fire of condemnation. But this is not because God has now rejected them or ceased to summon them into the communion of his love. The problem is within our hearts, not within God.
The Father eagerly invites his children to come to him. He is hopelessly and passionately in love with us. As C. S. Lewis once remarked (paraphrasing George MacDonald), God is easy to please but hard to satisfy. He will not be satisfied until we are able to reciprocate his love with perfect love; but we will only grow in our love for God as we grow in our understanding of God’s unconditional mercy. Love begets love. Forgiveness generates repentance.
And this takes us back to the Epistle to the Romans. Protestant exegesis has typically interpreted this letter as a battle between divine wrath and divine mercy. If we believe in Jesus, God won’t punish us. Underlying this is a contractual understanding of the God-human relationship. Instead of judging us according to the Law (which is typically interpreted as requiring perfect obedience), God offers us his forgiveness on the prescriptive condition that we repent and believe on Christ. I believe that this model of justification is terribly wrong and needs to be replaced by a participationist model grounded in the absolute love and unconditional mercy of God (see Douglas Campbell, The Quest for Paul’s Gospel; also see his chapter on Paul in Four Views of the Apostle Paul). God died on the cross not to deliver us from his wrath (except perhaps in an indirect sense) but to deliver us from the power of sin and death and bring us into the divine life of the Holy Trinity. Romans 1-4 must be read in light of chapters 5-8.
Until we get this right, we will never be able to read St Paul properly nor preach the gospel rightly.