Our world around us has many different views of how God is like. Some people look upon the suffering in the world and say that God must be an elusive distant unmerciful being, who does not care about the survival of humanity, who leaves the poor hungry and sick helpless. Others see how dishonest ungodly men thrive in this world and believe that God must be unjust, because the wicked seems to go unpunished.
Yet, God has provided the Bible for us to know Him without relying on our own human observations. He has chosen to clearly reveal Himself to us through His word! In particular, the book of Exodus, which is all about God revealing Himself more and more to Moses and the Israelites, is very useful in helping us understand how God is like.
The mystery: Mercy and justice in one God
God describes his own character and nature to Moses in Exo 34:6-7.
The LORD passed before him (Moses) and proclaimed, “The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love and faithfulness for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, BUT who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and fourth generation.”
Here, God reveals two attributes of Himself – He is merciful and also just. At first glance we might just read this as simply a catalogue of God’s qualities, but if we pause and consider, we realise that God is merciful but just, and these are 2 qualities that don’t seem to go together so easily. It is important for us to note that this is God’s own revelation of His own character. This is not what Moses (the author) assumes God to be like. It would be arrogant and presumptuous of us to say that we know that God is unmerciful and unjust based on our own observations, without hearing what God has to say about Himself.
Still, logical reasoning might scream contradiction! God cannot be both wholly merciful and just. If God is entirely merciful, He must let us evade the consequences of our sin, and He will not be just since sin goes unpunished. On the other hand, if God is fully just, He must punish our sins fully without holding back and that would mean that He is unmerciful! How is this possible?
The easiest response for us would be to not believe that the Bible says about this. Or we could also just pick the part of God’s character that we’d like to focus on. We could merely focus on God’s mercy and continue dwelling in sin, thinking that He will not punish us, or we could simply affirm that God is just and try our best to kill sin so that we will not be punished. Yet, again it would be arrogant of us to say that logical reasoning trumps God’s own personal revelation. It is also easy for us who have been Christians for a long time to slip into an easy believism, because we have heard this said over and over again that it has lost it’s value. For the Israelites, and even early readers of the Old Testament writings, this promise made by a God who is merciful, gracious and loving yet continues to be just seems like a contradiction and impossibility. For us today, we don’t just have the Old Testament writings, but we also have the New Testament books. It would be more reasonable to look at other passages in Scripture that may be able to explain how this is possible.
The solution: Come see the cross, where love and mercy meet
In Romans 3:23-25, Paul writes,
For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified (made righteous) by His grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation (satisfaction of wrath) by His blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in His divine forbearance (patience) He had passed over former sins.
Paul explains here how all have sinned. In his original letter, Paul was writing to the Jews, who thought that they were better than the Gentiles, because they were the people of God and they knew the law. Yet, knowledge, heritage and pedigree are all nothing before the standards of God. This is the justice of a holy God. But, God can be both merciful and just. God is merciful since He has made sinners righteous as a free gift through “the redemption that is in Christ Jesus”. He is perfectly just and righteous to do so because His wrath has been fully satisfied by the blood of Jesus Christ.
The cross is where God is able to be both merciful and just, where He is shown to be “just and justifier” (c.f. Rom 3:26). There is no contradiction in God’s mercy and justice, only sacrifice. As the hymn describes it, on that cross as Jesus hung, “grace and peace like mighty rivers, poured incessant from above, and heaven’s peace and perfect justice, kissed a guilty world in love”. This is the only reason why we can cling on to 1 John 1:9, that if we confess our sins, He is faithful and just and will forgive our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. In our trials and suffering, we know that these are not punishments for our sins, because God has accepted the full punishment of Christ.
Our response: Live lives of holy worship
It is also extremely important for us to continue to uphold the fact that God is both merciful and just because it drastically changes the way we respond to God! It teaches us that we can no longer remain comfortable dwelling in sin nor religiously obey the law for the sake of escaping punishment. Rather, it calls us to respond in love, amazement and awe, by worshipping God. This was exactly what Moses did after hearing the LORD’s proclamation (c.f. Exo 34:8). We are told that he "quickly bowed His head toward the earth and worshipped".
How can we live a life of worship? Does this mean we are to always be chipper and be singing songs? In Rom 12:1, Paul explains what it means to worship God. Our spiritual worship is demonstrated as we live obedient lives to God. We know that we are not saved by our own ability to overcome sin, yet continuing to dwell in sin is not an option and reflects our ungratefulness to God’s saving work. God’s justice and mercy informs our daily life! We live lives of worship by walking in a manner worthy of the calling we have received, as recipients who have received the gift of righteousness in Christ.
Written by Nathan Tang