How can we be forgiven by a God who is not only merciful, but just?
Some time ago I received the following email:
“You say that the hands of God are bound by his own laws. You write: “God can do everything except deny himself and ignore his own laws.” Why would our Creator impose such limits on His mercy? Even if he enacted such a law, he could break it immediately, since he is all-powerful! He can forgive without punishing sin. God is merciful. He can forgive just like that. ”
The Mercy and Justice of God
Imagine a man who has had his arm amputated: he is still a man. If we saw him from a distance, we would notice one side of his silhouette was missing, but we would still say: here is a man.
His nature was not altered by the fact that he has lost an arm. But this is not the case with God. If you remove a single attribute from God, if you amputate His justice, for example, you can no longer say that it is God but with something missing! No, his whole being is affected by this amputation.
It is important to understand this, because we can easily make a caricature of God. It is possible, for example, to emphasize the love and mercy of God to the detriment of his justice.
Because God is holy, He cannot tolerate nor allow the sin that takes us away from Him. Because He is just He must punish sin. Even before the fall of Adam and Eve (Hawa), God had decreed that sin should be punished. The consequence would be death. “The wages of sin is death.”
Is repentance all that’s needed?
Would God forgive just because a man or woman repents? If he did, then what about the sentence of death that God said would be the punishment? Has God lied? Is our creator free to ignore his own law which he himself has enacted and to contradict his own holy character?
Can God ignore what he has promised? Surely, nothing that God has said can be changed? He has said what the punishment must be. That penalty must be imposed. The sinner must die, otherwise God is unjust and God has lied.
Mercy Without Justice
Imagine the following scene, taking place in a courtroom:
The judge sits on his bench and a man found guilty of a cold-blooded murder stands in front of him. The woman and the family of the victim are present. What sentence will this murderer receive? Capital punishment ? Life imprisonment without parole?
The whole assembly is asked to stand. Looking at the guilty man in the eye, the judge said to him: “I have observed that you faithfully give alms and pray regularly. I also heard that you were hospitable, always willing to share your meal with a stranger. Admittedly you have only done this for a short time, but your good works have made amends for your evil deed of murdering this woman’s husband. I grant you my mercy. You are forgiven. I acquit you of any crime or penalty. You are free to go.”
The judges hammer comes down. The decision is made. The man smiles with relief and walks out of the courtroom a free man. But, many are shocked and murmurs of anger and grief fill the room. Someone shouts, “It’s not fair. It isn’t right.”
This never happens in a court of law. A set of scales can illustrate the weighing of evidence which does show some good in the life of a criminal, but once found guilty, a fair and just sentence must be pronounced. That the criminal has done some “good works” does not change the case. We all know that.
The Righteous Judge
God is not like the judge of this imaginary story. He never sets aside his righteousness to demonstrate his mercy. My e-mail correspondent suggested that God can use his “omnipotence” to ignore his own laws. This amounts to saying that “the judge of all the earth is less just than the sinners He will judge.
God is righteous, and His righteousness leads to absolute justice. But, He is also merciful, and His mercy is an absolute mercy. The Prophet David (Dawud) confirms this in his Psalms (Zabour), “Justice and equity are the basis of your throne. Goodness and faithfulness are before your face “- Psalm 89:15.
But how can these two attributes be true? Happy are we! God revealed in Jesus Christ his justice and mercy. But, how? Let me tell you a story…
The Viking King
There is a story of a Viking king. In his kingdom peace reigned, because the king practiced and exercised righteousness, the evildoers were punished. One day, however, a robbery took place in the royal treasury – a robbery of unbelievable value, enough to raise a great army! Never had anything like this happened before. Who could have done it? The king urged his officers to do all they could to find the criminal, and decreed that, if found, the person would be whipped to death.
One day, the culprit was caught. Who was it? It was the king’s own mother! She was plotting to overthrow her eldest son and put an illegitimate son in his place. What would or could the king do, to impose his penalty? On the one hand, he loved his mother and wanted to spare her, but on the other side he had to uphold order and justice.
The day of execution came. The palace was sombre. The whole town had gathered. The king ascended the throne which had been erected there, and sat there with his own son; his successor.
His mother was then brought bound before him; He had only to order the execution. The silence of impending death reigned! Everyone was waiting for the king’s decision. Was he going to let her go unpunished, or would he put her to death?
It was then that the king rose with determination. He took off his crown, laid it on his son’s head He removed his royal tunic and wrapped it round his son’s shoulders. To the astonishment of everyone he then went down the steps of the throne. He stood before his mother, who was kneeling face down; she was humiliated, a victim of hopeless remorse, expecting justice — her own execution.
The people’s amazement increased as the king wrapped his mother in his arms, covering her with his body to protect her. He then gave the order to the executioner: “Begin the punishment!”
The executioner obeyed and flogged the king, to the astonishment of the crowd, until he died.
The people could see both justice and mercy working together.
They shouted, “Long live the King.” They were speaking to the son of the king, who had remained seated on the throne. The young man, still just a child, rose and ordered that his grandmother, weeping in repentance, be released and allowed to return home. Nobody could challenge the decision. Why? Because everyone knew that the unworthy queen’s son had endured her punishment. The Law which imposed the penalty was vindicated. The punishment had been imposed in full. The king had been both just and merciful.
The Messiah come to become a substitute and a saviour
This is only a small illustration of what Jesus did for sinners. The King of kings came to earth saying: “I come to save you, to pay the penalty for your sins, to endure the punishment of death in your place; I will die so that you may live.” However, the penalty is not merely physical death or spiritual death. The Bible speaks of Hell as the Second Death. It is a place of eternal banishment and everlasting punishment.
The prophet Isaiah lived over 700 years before Jesus was born, but he believed the promises about the coming Saviour given to Adam and Eve, Abraham, Moses and David. He was also looking forward in time to the death of the Messiah when he prophesied:
Surely he has borne our griefs
and carried our sorrows;
yet we esteemed him stricken,
smitten by God, and afflicted.
But he was wounded for our transgressions;
he was crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace,
and with his stripes we are healed.
All we like sheep have gone astray;
we have turned every one to his own way;
and the LORD has laid on him
the iniquity of us all.
By oppression and judgment he was taken away;
and as for his generation, who considered
that he was cut off out of the land of the living,
stricken for the transgression of my people?
And they made his grave with the wicked
and with a rich man in his death,
although he had done no violence,
and there was no deceit in his mouth.
Yet it was the will of the LORD to crush him;
he has put him to grief;
when his soul makes an offering for sin,
he shall see his offspring; he shall prolong his days;
the will of the LORD shall prosper in his hand.
Out of the anguish of his soul he shall see and be satisfied;
by his knowledge shall the righteous one, my servant,
make many to be accounted righteous,
and he shall bear their iniquities.
Therefore I will divide him a portion with the many,
and he shall divide the spoil with the strong,
because he poured out his soul to death
and was numbered with the transgressors;
yet he bore the sin of many,
and makes intercession for the transgressors.
The Bible: Isaiah 53:4-12
God’s love is revealed
This speaks of an amazing love! Would the love of the Viking king for his mother be greater than the love of God for His creatures? No ! The New Testament of the Bible, the Injil says:
“We have known love, in that he [Jesus Christ] gave his life for us” (The Injil: 1 John 3:16).
“There is no greater love than to lay down his life for his friends” (The Injil: John 15:13).
Perhaps you are seeking to gain paradise by your obedience and by your good works. Ask yourself, “Will I really succeed?” Does God really weigh up our good and evil? Will all our good deeds make amends for the evil ones? Do you have any assurance about the welcome that God will give you in the last day? If an evil person can simply do a few good things and his evil life is forgotten and forgiven by God, where is there any idea of justice? But how can God be just and yet forgive sins? The penalty must be paid before mercy can be shown. But, how can the penalty of eternal punishment be endured. Justice seems to exclude mercy. This is the wonderful good news of the Injil. It is as if Jesus wraps Himself around those who believe in Him. He takes the punishment. Now God’s mercy has been displayed through the innocent One dying for the guilty.
God has given us a way to be freed from the dominion of sin and to escape from his just judgment. The pathway to heaven has been opened. It is Jesus who paid the price of our entrance to Paradise, it is he who holds out his arms to you today. If your heart is made of stone, He will make it a heart of flesh. If you are a slave to your passions, He will free you from them. If you look only for an outward display of goodness, He will clean you inside.
He offers you His help for today and hope for tomorrow. His invitation is not for ever, he invites you today. Will you say “YES” to this invitation?
Mercy and justice can both exist because of the death of the Messiah for us
Mercy without justice is an evil. Our crimes and sins against a holy God must be punished. Why? Because God has declared it will be so.
Justice without mercy is a dreadful prospect for us. But God has shown how His justice and mercy can peacefully coexist. Jesus, as our representative bears the penalty. It is as if we are in Him. We are declared guilty and the punishment falls, but on the Messiah, who as man suffers, but His sufferings are of infinite worth, because He is the Son of God. This means an inifinite penalty is fully paid. God can be just and declare us right in His sight. There is no other way for God’s justice and mercy to both be honoured and revealed.