I kill and I make alive; I wound and I heal…
Here, God proclaims his two words to the Israelites who were about to enter into the promised land. If you were in Sunday school yesterday, we talked a bit about the difference between God’s killing work and his making alive work. Our confessions call God’s killing work—his anger, his wrath, his punishment for those who transgress his law—our confessions call this God’s alien work. God’s wrath is something that is not essential to who God is—it’s not fundamental to his nature. We say that God is holy. God is just. God is love. But we don’t say that God is wrath. God’s wrath only enters the picture because of the rebellion of his own creatures against him. God punishes sin because he must—not because he takes delight in it. On the other hand, God’s making alive work—his grace, his forgiveness, his saving acts—these are what our confessions call God’s proper work. God’s unmerited favor and grace is fundamentally essential of his nature.
God delights in giving life to those who have done nothing to deserve it—we see this even before the Fall. How does Genesis describe the creation act of God—ex nihilo—out of nothing. Before God spoke the world into existence there was nothing there to catch his eye. Nothing there to impress him or merit his goodwill. God creates because he wants to. He bestows life and blessing because he wants to. God makes alive because that’s who he is.
That’s why God wants to make this distinction clear to the people who he is about to lead into the land that he’s promised them—a promise going all the way back to God’s unmerited election of Abraham. God has given his people his law. He’s made a covenant with them and has mediated that covenant through his servant Moses. This covenant contains all the rules and the regulations—the statutes and commandment—that God’s people are supposed to follow. But God does not give them this law so that he can make them live. No, he gives them this law so that the law will do its wounding and killing work. It will wound this stiff-necked people by showing them where and how they transgress God’s law. The law will show them just how far they fall short of his holiness.
Why? So that they might long for God’s mercy. So that they might turn back to him and experience God’s making alive work—so that they might know that there is no god like this God—their God. There is no other god who would bestow his blessings of favor and grace on such an unworthy and undeserving people. God wants his people to distinguish between the killing work of his demands and the making alive work of his promises.
Ultimately, God showed this distinction at the cross. The cross is both God’s killing work and his making alive work. At the cross, God wounded his only begotten Son. God laid the full penalty for the sins of the world on his back. He made him to wear the stripes of our disobedience. He crushed Jesus under the fury of his wrath and anger. He made Jesus drink the cup that contained all God’s curses for those who transgress his holy law. Because God is just, and because sin merits death, God performed his complete killing work on Christ. He held nothing back. All of God’s anger at sin was meted out upon the head of his perfect, innocent Son.
But, at the same time that God was performing his killing work, he was also doing his making alive work. Through wounding Christ with stripes, the prophet Isaiah says that God was healing our wounds. Through crushing his own Son under the weight of sin, God was freeing us from our slavery to sin’s power. Through cursing Christ with the full penalty of the law, God was bringing us the blessing of forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation. Through killing his son, his only son, God was making you alive. As Jesus takes his final breath on the cross and cries out “It is finished,” the breath of God’s spirit blows across your dry, dead bones and makes them live.
Why has God done all this? Because giving life to those who don’t deserve it is who he is. He kills so he can make alive. He wounds so that he can heal. He poured out his justice on Christ, so that he might be the justifier of all who look to him for mercy. (Rom. 3:26)