“So you mean even if someone as heinous as Hitler were to believe in Jesus, he’ll get to go to Heaven?”
“And since God is all-forgiving, a murderer can continue killing people after he repents and not go to hell? Where’s the justice in that?”
Those were some questions my mother threw at my faith when I first became a Christian. I knew instinctively that those accusations had an explanation but as a baby believer, my theology was far from strong enough to defend my beliefs. I didn’t know how to answer her, and so I kept quiet in indignance.
Those questions continued to haunt me as I grew in my faith – not just because I had failed to answer my mum that very day – but also because they soon took on a very personal implication. The more I journeyed with God, the more convicted I was with my sinful nature, for there were many times I gave into temptation and did what was wrong before God.
Each time it happens I feel so undeserving of His love and grace. It seems too good to be true. How can I be forgiven knowing that I’ll sin again somehow? It just doesn’t make sense.
THE EQUILIBRIUM OF MERCY AND JUSTICE
First, we need to first understand God’s character. God is a merciful God. There are many instances throughout the Bible where God chose to forgive even though He could also have chosen not to (Genesis 18:23-33, Jeremiah 18:7-11, Exodus 32:7-14). I mean, He’s God. But being merciful is an unchanging part of His character.
But even as He is merciful, God is also – at the same time – just. Justice is important because it rights wrongs and upholds good for the sake of everyone. From Psalm 12:5 to Zechariah 7:9-10 to James 1:27, it is evident that God champions righteousness and defends the weak.
Here’s the clincher: While mercy and justice are two contrasting qualities, they aren’t conflicting. In fact, they’re complementary. I think one of the best examples how this is shown through the story of Jonah.
Jonah was a prophet commissioned by God to preach repentance to Nineveh, a diabolic nation of that time. He tried to run away from this calling, perhaps afraid of what would happen to him. I mean, would you dare march into ISIS camps and convict them of their wrongdoings? Chances are, you’ll get shot even before you finish your first sentence.
But it was soon revealed that Jonah wasn’t just afraid of risking his life. He was afraid that Nineveh would repent and be relented from their judgment. We know this because Jonah was angry to the point of death when Nineveh actually repented and God forgave them. He blamed God.
This change of plans greatly upset Jonah, and he became very angry. So he complained to the Lord about it: “Didn’t I say before I left home that you would do this, Lord? That is why I ran away to Tarshish! I knew that you are a merciful and compassionate God, slow to get angry and filled with unfailing love. You are eager to turn back from destroying people. Just kill me now, Lord! I’d rather be dead than alive if what I predicted will not happen.” (Jonah 4:1-3)
Jonah knew. He knew that God was a merciful God and couldn’t stand to think that God would pardon Nineveh.
And can anyone blame him? If God today withholds punishment from ISIS if they suddenly repent and follow Him, can we truly be happy for them? I think most of us, especially those who have been personally affected by their actions, would be balling our fists, faces red with anger.
What about the innocent lives lost? What about the families that were separated? What about the trauma that the victims are stuck with forever? Who’s gonna pay for the physical and psychological harm caused?
At the core of it, Jonah asked the question in many of our hearts: How can a holy God let go of such appalling atrocities?
In His reply to Jonah’s outcry for injustice, God gently rebukes, “These are my people whom I love. Should I not have compassion on them?” (Jonah 4:11)
At the same time, we must remember that God is a just God. He would have enacted punishment in pursuit of justice if Nineveh had refused to repent, as He had done before to Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 19).
But God isn’t a sadistic God, waiting to mete out punishment regardless of response. His first instinct is never to punish but to allow for second chances for He is slow to anger and quick to forgive. In fact, He delights in showing mercy (Micah 7:18)!
Without justice, mercy is an overindulgence of compassion. But without mercy, justice will be reduced to sheer legalism.
You can’t fully appreciate one without the other.
THROWING GRACE INTO THE EQUATION
Beyond being merciful, God is also gracious. While mercy is not giving us what we deserve, grace is giving us what we do not deserve. Through mercy, we were delivered from judgment; through grace, we receive salvation (Ephesians 2:8-9).
The only condition? Repentance.
If we truly repent – truly acknowledge the severity of our sins – then what results from receiving mercy and grace is nothing but a debt of gratitude. How can someone who recognises that they’ve been given much more than what they deserve not feel indebted?
Any abuser of grace has not received forgiveness, for the moment someone thinks he deserves grace, grace ceases to be grace but morphs into something else entirely – licentiousness. Grace, by its very definition, is unmerited.
That isn’t to say Christians don’t sin. We fall all the same, and in those times we will have to grapple with our sinfulness and God’s holiness. But there is a difference between struggling with sin and indulging in sin. Our struggle is not a charge against us as much as evidence that we are sons and daughters of God (Romans 7:18-25). As Charles Spurgeon aptly puts it:
“God has so changed your nature by His grace that when you sin you shall be like a fish on dry land. You shall be out of your element and long to get into a right state again. You cannot sin, for you love God! The sinner may drink sin down as the ox drinks down water, but to you, it shall be as the brine of the sea. You may become so foolish as to try the pleasures of the world, but they shall be no pleasures to you.”
Grace isn’t an airy-fairy feel-good concept and is not meant as a license for us to sin. If anything, grace has the power to convict us of our sinful nature and pushes us to change.
The grace that does not change my life will not save my soul.