Why does God seem different in the Old Testament vs New Testament?

Is the God of our Bible one of wrath or love? Nick Turner and Adam Howell sit down to unpack the question: “Why does God seem different in the Old Testament vs. the New Testament?”


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Video Transcript

Nick: Hey guys, my name is Nick. Thank you so much for joining us on Upstream, which is brought to you by Boyce College. I’m here with Dr. Howell who teaches classes in Old Testament interpretation. Today, we’re going to be talking about the question: In the Old Testament, God seems like a God of wrath and the New Testament God seems like a God of love. Can you tell me why that is?

Dr. Adam Howell: Yeah, that’s a good question. I think that each testament has different emphases. That’s just the nature of writing. You’ll get different emphases here, different emphases there, and that’s very normal—especially when we come to something like the Bible that is progressively God showing himself to the world. He’s revealing himself progressively.

It’s not just this one big full picture necessarily all the time. Though, we could probably find texts very early in the Bible that represent both of these attributes of God. But what you get is this progressive revelation of God over time, whereby there’s different emphases.

The implication of that is not that there’s a difference in the Old Testament, and New. In fact, I’ve got Malachi 3:6 pulled up here and it says, “for I the Lord do not change.” Now, what’s interesting in this passage is right before that, he says I’m going to bring judgment.

But when he says, “I do not change,” he says therefore, you children of Jacob are not consumed. So you’re like, “wait a minute”, your mind does a little bit of a hiccup there, right? You just said, you’re bringing judgment and you do not change. And yet, you’re not going to consume the people. You’re going to be faithful to your covenant. That steadfast love of God’s covenant faithfulness is going to still be in place. He’s not going to do away with his people.

But that concept of God not changing, no matter what the emphasis may be, Old Testament to New, God hasn’t changed. He’s not different. And that’s revealed to us in Scripture.

When we see God’s compassion and his justice side by side in both the Old Testament and the New Testament, now you go, “okay, maybe there’s an emphasis here or there.” But both are true in both testaments. It comes down to, we have to read the whole of the Old Testament and we have to read the whole of the New Testament and not just presume that these emphases are telling us everything about the God in the Old Testament or the God in the New Testament.

It’s the same God, the Lord does not change. So just for the fun of it, and because I have time, let me give you a few other examples of this. The first one that I want to take you to is Exodus 34. This is one that’s both of these attributes side by side. Moses on Mount Sinai, he’s just made the second set of tablets. The Lord passes by him.

And the Lord says “the Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin.” And we stop, and everybody goes, “oh yeah, hallelujah.” That’s the God I wanted to see in the Old Testament.

But the very next line, it’s still in the same verse actually, “but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children to the third and the fourth generation.” In those two verses Exodus 34:6–7, you see both of those attributes of God. Not only his justice and the fact that he will judge sin there. He will hold the guilty responsible, but what is celebrated is that he is compassionate and gracious. It’s in Exodus. It’s in the Old Testament. Both are true, right? There are plenty of other passages in the Old Testament that are like this, but let’s jump to the New Testament.

I want to take you to Romans 3 for this one, to kind of see that both judgment and compassion are at play and it culminates primarily in the cross. When we think about these little pictures of compassion in the Old Testament, these little pictures of mercy, all of that is escalated. It is magnified and it finds its final fulfillment and triumph in Christ at the cross.

The New Testament celebrates that and rightly emphasizes that mercy. Even though it may be in seed form in the Old Testament, it still is true in both places. And the New Testament celebrates that, but that doesn’t mean the New Testament dismisses the justice of God either. In fact, it doesn’t.

So the passage here is Romans 3:21, “but now, the righteousness of God,” there’s that righteousness, God’s right character “has been manifested apart from the law, although the law and the prophets bear witness to it.” Paul just said the Old Testament, the law and the prophets are bearing witness to this righteousness, “the righteousness of God, through faith in Jesus Christ, for all who believe for there is no distinction. All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God and are justified by his grace as a gift through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood.”

Now, propitiation would be like this: Let’s say this wrath is coming at you or me. And then a propitiation is that that wrath gets deferred to someone else.

So this justice, this righteousness of God, gets put on Christ, is what he’s saying. “Propitiation by his blood to be received by faith.” This, this event of Christ taking that judgment was to show God’s righteousness “because in his divine forbearance, he passed over former sins.” I thought you just said that the Old Testament God was full of wrath?

The New Testament says that God passed over former sins. “And that was to show his righteousness at the present time so that he might be just, and the justifier of those who have faith in Jesus.” So right there, just one passage, one example. But you’ve got both God being just and carrying out the just condemnation that is due to humanity because of our sin, but he’s carrying it out on his son.

That’s the great exchange. So it’s still true in the new Testament, but Christ absorbs that wrath so that we might celebrate God as the justifier of those who have faith in Christ.

Nick: Thank you so much Dr. Howell for clearing that question up and expounding on Scripture. And thank you so much for watching Upstream.

If you would like to find out more about Boyce, please visit our website boycecollege.com.

We’ll see you next time on Upstream.