“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, but who will by no means clear the guilty.”
Justice—rendering to people what they deserve—is not a popular topic in our day. Sure, we hear the term justice used all the time, but often the word is used to describe punishments that do not fit their crimes or to mean the redistribution of what some citizens have earned to those who will not work. Such things are anything but just. Moreover, when it comes to the “God-talk” we hear around us, it is exceedingly rare to find people who will defend the justice of our Creator.
Many want to embrace the biblical statement that “God is love” (1 John 4:8), yet few want to invest any biblical content in the phrase when they speak it. What such individuals mean by saying “God is love” is that God is a kindly gentleman who borders on senility. Most of the time, He overlooks the bad things we do and wants only to bless us because we are all basically good. God might disapprove of certain behavior, but He would certainly not be personally offended by sin because it violates His holiness, nor would He hold sins against people as long as they try to work their way to heaven.
If we are to confess that “God is love,” however, we must affirm the same content the biblical authors assume when they make such statements. If our Creator’s love is to mean anything, it must include a love of righteousness and purity. Logically, it must also mean that He hates sin and those who remain impenitent. As we read in Exodus 34:6–7, the Lord can by no means overlook sin. His justice demands that He punish sin and all who continue in it. He does not excuse children for their transgressions if they had bad models in their parents, but He pours out His eternal wrath if these children continue in their parents’ wicked ways without repentance. God is indeed merciful, as the passage tells us, but mercy is meaningless unless the Lord puts a premium on justice—on meting out the terrible judgment that sinners and their sin deserve.
Christianity is not alone in affirming God’s justice. Neither is it unusual that Christians believe in a God of mercy. Other religions, in their own misguided ways, have such views of our Creator. What is amazing about biblical religion is that God is merciful without sacrificing His justice. He does punish the sin even of His own people, but He does so in Christ (Rom. 3:21–26). But make no mistake, His justice is still shown, for our righteous Lord must pour His anger on sin.
Coram DeoLiving before the face of God
Our study today is based on a proof text from question and answer 10 of the Heidelberg Catechism, a question that asks whether God will allow our disobedience and rebellion to go unpunished. The answer for all people, even servants of Jesus, is “no.” But the disobedience of Christians was punished in Christ when God “condemned sin in the flesh” (Rom. 8:3). Let us be clear that the perfect justice of the Lord is always made manifest.