A Contrary Character? God in the Old Testament vs. the New Testament

Written By: Brandon Cleaver


October 27, 2022

The consistency of God’s character (“nature” may be better) is often challenged. Despite the litany of bible (When referring to THE Bible, it is capitalized — this is true throughout the document) verses that speak to His unchanging persona, many people assert that there is a considerable difference between the portrayal of God in the Old Testament and the New Testament. Consider the following bible verses:

“For I the Lord do not change; therefore you, O children of Jacob, are not consumed.” (Mal. 3:6)

“Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.” (Jm. 1:17)

“Of old you laid the foundation of the earth, and the heavens are the work of your hands. They will perish, but you will remain; they will all wear out like a garment. You will change them like a robe, and they will pass away, but you are the same, and your years have no end.” (Ps 102:25–27)

“Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.” (Heb. 13:8)

These verses are a sample of the many throughout Scripture affirming God’s unchanging nature. Nevertheless, in this discussion, wrath is often the central emotion attributed to God in the Old Testament, while grace is typically ascribed to Jesus in the New Testament. There are numerous reasons why people assign an incongruity of God’s character between the testaments. Some of the more popular ones are explored in our Everyday Theology episode [click here to view] on this subject. But here, we will address this subject by looking at opposite examples of each: instances of grace exhibited by God the Father in the Old Testament and divine wrath exhibited by Jesus, God the Son, in the New Testament.

One doesn’t have to go far to find the first instance of grace exhibited toward humankind by God in the Old Testament. By the third chapter of Genesis, both Adam and Eve sinned by disobeying God. The immediate result was that “the eyes of both of them were opened, and they knew they were naked . . .” (Gen. 3:7). The phrase “knew they were naked” refers to the shame and guilt that often accompanies sinful actions. The consequence meant banishment from the Garden, but even in carrying out that righteous judgment, God’s love for them showed through a subtle, grace-filled act.

Just before they were expelled from the Garden, “The Lord God made clothing from skins for the man and his wife, and he clothed them” (Gen 3:21). Since God is all holy, He must administer justice, which is displayed in the consequences of their disobedience, but holiness also entails mercy and grace. His clothing of Adam and Eve was a sign of forgiveness and a way to assuage the shame and guilt they experienced from being naked.

Another example arises from the well-known narrative of King David. From a contemporary perspective, David is somewhat of a hero in the modern perspective. We recognize that he is flawed and imperfect, but his bravery and trust in God against Goliath alone are laudable. Yet if we stop to consider his many sins, it can be shocking. David orchestrated a death, lusted, fornicated, lied, etc., and somehow God still referred to him as a “man after His own heart.” (1 Sam. 13:14)

The Psalms are filled with poetic and prayerful utterances from David to God, but most importantly, humble repentance. In Ps. 51:1, he asks God, “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your unfailing love; according to your great compassion blot out my transgressions.” There is no doubt that King David sinned repeatedly, but there is also a wealth of evidence from the Psalms that he was genuinely contrite and turned from his sins. David was not a man after God’s heart because of the perfection of his life, but the direction.[1] Therefore, God was merciful. “Whoever conceals his transgressions will not prosper, but he who confesses and forsakes them will obtain mercy” (Pr. 28:13).

Jesus [God the Son] referenced Hell more than anyone in the Bible. For some, that sentence may be jarring, though it is true. That statement seems contrary to the Jesus many people picture, who loves indiscriminately and has few abrasive sentiments to share.

Yet, in the book of Luke, Jesus makes a declaration that some consider fear-inducing. He states, “I tell you, my friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body and after that can do no more. But I will show you whom you should fear: Fear him who, after your body has been killed, has authority to throw you into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him” (Lk. 12:4–5).

It may appear like Jesus is using a fear tactic as an incentive to follow Him. But instead, Jesus is addressing the pressure that often derives from prioritizing people over God. His overall point is that while people are restricted in their ability to hurt or help, God has both the power to execute righteous judgment or extend grace. God’s nature is to display anger toward that which violates His standards of holiness, and this is true whether God the Father or God the Son is involved. A few verses later, Jesus shows the love inherent to His blunt message by mentioning God’s care for sparrows, then states, “Don’t be afraid, you are worth more than many sparrows” (Lk. 12:7).

Another seemingly harsh word from Jesus comes from the next chapter of Luke. Jesus received a report about some Galileans who Pilate killed while they were offering sacrifices. One might expect Jesus to offer condolences or a sympathetic response, but His reaction was quite the opposite. He turned this tragedy into a teaching lesson:

“And he answered them, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.”

This tragedy shows the importance and urgency of repentance. Jesus is teaching His onlookers that “tragedy . . . is not the measure of one’s sinfulness and one’s need to repent. Those who are not experiencing tragedies are also in need of repentance.”[2] This was not a lighthearted message from Jesus but a necessary one. Tragedy can arise unexpectedly, and therefore, repentance should not be delayed.

The consistency of God’s character is central to who He is. It’s this fact that fuels our faith in Him. As Christians, we can be confident that no matter the circumstances, God can be trusted. The same God that provided forgiveness for Adam and Eve by clothing their nakedness provided forgiveness for us through His sacrifice on the cross. This act perfectly demonstrated God’s holy requirement of justice and His unmerited grace toward us . . . for all those who love Him and place their faith in Him.

To learn more about this topic, check out this episode of Everyday Theology ⤵️