Every night after dinner, my family and I read a passage of Scripture and then go through a devotion that is based on the Westminster Confession of Faith. Tonight, our passage was from Exodus 34 and the topic of discussion was the character of God. Let me just say that there is nothing more fulfilling, even amidst your 2-year old son wreaking havoc and being a perpetual source of sound effects and noise, than being a part of your 6-year old daughter engaging with real theological concepts. Each lesson ends with a series of questions. Ava, my 6-year old looks forward to this portion. It warms my heart.
Exodus 34 picks up with Moses getting the second copy of the 10 Commandments. He was on the mountain for the second time, you remember, because he smashed the original copy at the sight of the idolatrous outrage that was taking place at the feet of a golden calf.
The devotion very quickly moved to its main point: Moses prayed that God would have mercy on them. God is fully merciful yet fully just. We often read that with little regard for what it actually means. This is a difficult concept to comprehend. Imagine for a moment, Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump being found guilty of something horrific: In Hillary’s case, exposing top secret info that was shown to have directly caused the death of 4 Americans in Benghazi. In Trump’s case, evidence showing his willful colluding with the Russians in order to help them hack the DNC so he could win the election. Imagine they went to court and were found guilty. Instead of imposing a sentence, the judge says, “You are free to go. Forget it even happened” How would you feel about that?
When justice collapses in a society, hope collapses with it.
Total mercy comes as the expense of total justice. Total justice comes at the expense of total mercy. If someone was fully just they could not be fully merciful. If one were fully merciful they could not be fully just. Unless…well, we will get there in a moment.
Surpassingly enough, my 6-year old daughter, Ava, was able to grasp this paradox. I believe I put to her a hypothetical situation in which she did something wrong, and rather than punishing her, I told her it was ok–that she could forget that it even happened. Initially, she was ok with that. Who wouldn’t be? You could take something that isn’t yours, and then get no punishment. But then it became more real: I asked her, “What if someone did something very wrong to you; perhaps they stole your favorite toy, and I told their parents, ‘its ok, don’t worry about it–let your kid keep the toy?'” She understood that my being overly kind would mean that she would not be getting a fair shake.
For her, justice would have been denied. Complete mercy necessarily denies complete justice.
On the other hand, if I were fully just–If I called the police and reported the child for theft–what would that teach my daughter? My lack of mercy would in the long run damage not only the kid who stole Ava’s stuff, but also Ava! Would that be right?
No. At times, justice must be bore by someone not involved.
This concept was strange to her. It is strange to all of us.
One of the things we have been talking about lately in our home is the nature of sin. Many Christians wrongly believe sin to be merely the wrong things that we do. I remember hearing this as a child. I was more concerned with whether I was doing the right or wrong things, that I defined sin as some sort of barometer for bad behavior. There is perhaps nothing more absurd in all of Christendom than to believe that. It took me a long time to be delivered from that way of thinking! Heck, I am still being delivered from it. While behavior is a part of sin, it is not sin in its fullest and most sordid sense. Sin is more than just bad behavior. Bad behavior is a symptom of something else–something more sinister.
In fact, if Jesus’ death on the cross only cured our sinful behavior, we would still go to hell. Yeah, read that again:
“If Jesus’ death on the cross only cured our sinful behavior, we would still go to hell.”
As I described to Ava, sin is like a perpetual cancer. When we get the sniffles or the couch, it isn’t the sniffles or the cough that is making us sick. As Ava described it to me, “Its the germs that make us sick.” Absolutely right. Sin is like a disease that controls our being and dictates how we live. It is our moral compass. Unfortunately, the byproducts of sin run the gamut from speeding to lying to rape to murder. The New Testament refers to sin as a power that controls us. Paul talks about knowing what he ought to do, but instead doing the opposite. If Paul had to struggle with sin, what does that say about you or me? It is a power that influences us. It can enslave us.
I asked Ava, “If sin separates us from God, and our sinful behavior was instantly cured, would we still go to hell?” She thought about this for a few moments, and answered “Yes.” I think she understood that sin is more than just bad behavior. If Jesus death on the cross was simply done in order to make us do good deeds, would that really be worth His death on the cross? Isn’t that just some sort of moralism?
Jesus has brought us something more wonderful than just some sort of pragmatism.
I agree with Ravi Zacharias, “Jesus did not come into the world to make bad men good. He came into the world to make dead men live.” That, my friend, is worth shouting about.
We talked about that cosmic courtroom that is in session not because of our bad deeds, but because of our cancer–our sinful nature–the nature that caused human beings to crucify the Son of God. The cancer that caused human beings to wonder, “Did God really say…?”
Because of our cancer–our sin–we deserve to go to hell.
Fortunately, God is fully just. He is also fully merciful. What is He to do with us? We deserve death, but His character grants mercy, right?
This is where I was able to share with Ava the most incredible news of all: Yes, we deserve hell, but instead of God banging down the gavel and sentencing us to death, Jesus entered the courtroom and volunteered to pay the price for our sin. He intermediated on our behalf. He had a direct influence on God’s wrath.
He went to hell in our place.
God was fully merciful: he let us go free. Yet, he was fully just: Our sin was punished. Jesus took our punishment. He lived so that He could die. He died so we could live.
Without Jesus Christ, none of us could escape hell. We would all be there eventually.
God’s being fully just and fully merciful would be a paradox…unless…Jesus hadn’t come to be our propitiation.
I pray my sweet 6-year old can grasp that. Full disclaimer:
I pray I can grasp that.