Various views about God exist in our culture, but if there is one belief that people hold in common across religious lines, it is that “God is love.” This would not be a problem if the belief that God is love were defined by biblical content, for Scripture does indeed reveal that God is a loving God. Regrettably, however, some of the loudest proponents of the notion that God is love in modern Western culture are those who are the least likely to actually define what that means biblically. For many people, the idea that God is love means that our Creator overlooks or ignores our sin. His forgiveness is unconditional, demanding no payment for our transgressions.
In reality, God does not simply overlook sin, and there is a condition that must be met if we are to be forgiven. For while Scripture talks often about the love of God, it is just as emphatic that God is just (Deut. 32:4). The Lord who is revealed in the pages of the Bible does not allow sin to go unpunished. He does not “clear the guilty” (Num. 14:18), that is, He does not simply wipe the slate clean when He forgives a person. His forgiveness is costly; the only question is who will pay the cost.
On a human level, we regard it as a great injustice if a guilty person escapes punishment for a crime. How much more, then, would it be unjust for the perfectly righteous God not to punish sin? For God to be just, He must impose a penalty for transgression. The consistency of His character is at stake. If He were not to punish sin, He would not be truly just, and if He were not truly just, we could not believe what He has revealed about Himself, for He has told us that He is a just God (Isa. 5:16).
At the same time, God also tells us that He is merciful, unwilling that any of His people should perish (Ps. 86:15; 2 Peter 3:9). He wants to justify His people, to declare them righteous so that they can live forever. And yet He must do so in a manner that preserves His justice. That, of course, is what He does in our justification. Romans 3:22b–26 says God found a way to show mercy without denying His justice by having His Son pay the price for our sin in our place. This makes God both just and justifier (v. 26). Unlike the God revealed in other religions, the one true God does not compromise His character when He forgives. He does not simply wave sin away but punishes it in the person of Christ. He remains true to what He has revealed about Himself, so we know we can trust Him.