A writer once compared God to a judge who is sitting on the bench with a condemned sinner before him. As the illustration goes, God looks at this person before him who is lost and says, “I have no choice but to pass sentence upon you. I wish that I could change my mind, but I am bound to my Word.” The sentence is proclaimed, and God tearfully bangs the gavel. The writer related that in situations such as that, God is torn because justice won’t allow him to do what he wants to do; people perish because God holds himself to a standard that he wishes he could change. The only problem with that illustration? It is not a biblical view. God is not at war with himself. God does not regret his standard. God’s mercy and justice are linked without any contradiction.
The problem comes when we think God to be like us. We think that maybe he is so loving that he will overlook our sins, and if he does not, then there is something wrong with his ways. We can never hope to call the Eternal One into question using a human standard. Or, in the words of God, “You thought that I was altogether like you” (Psalm 50:21).
It is common to misinterpret God’s mercy and judgment when we operate by assumptions. I have heard people sometimes mistakenly state that the Old Testament is a book of harshness and judgment, while the New Testament is a book of mercy. If we actually examine that claim, we will find word “mercy” is mentioned over four times more often in the Old Testament as in the New Testament.
One of the clearest moments of God speaking of his mercy occurs in the book of Exodus. Moses is upon Mount Sinai with God, and he is about to pass before Moses and give him a revelation about himself. At the moment God passes Moses, he could say a host of things about himself, but let’s consider what he does say:
The LORD descended in the cloud and stood with him there and proclaimed the name of the LORD. The LORD passed before him and proclaimed, “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, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation” (Exodus 34:5-7).
So then, we see that the mournful, helpless judge metaphor from earlier does not bear up under the biblical standard. God is a God who is both merciful and just. His actions are not held to and governed by outside restrictions. Mercy is a characteristic of God, but we must remember that God is the perfection of mercy itself. In other words, mercy is more than just something God has; mercy is something that God is.
Since it is up to God to judge his creation rightly, it is also up to God to show mercy rightly. As Paul states, “What shall we say then? Is there injustice on God’s part? By no means! For he says to Moses, ‘I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion’” (Romans 9:14-15). One writer stated, “It is God’s mercy, so he can do with it what he wants!” We sometimes object and want God to extend or withhold mercy as we see fit, largely ignoring God’s plans. Sometimes we must ask ourselves:
What is our reason to complain if God honors a tax collector’s prayer over that of a Pharisee?
What can we say against him if Jesus listens to a dying thief and welcomes him into Paradise?
What is our place to judge him if, as a Father, he throws a party when his prodigal returns from wasting his inheritance?
“Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?” (Genesis 18:25). The understood answer to that question is “Yes, always.”
“We get the odd notion that God is showing mercy because Jesus died.
No – Jesus died because God is showing mercy.
It was the mercy of God that gave us Calvary, not Calvary that gave us mercy.
If God had not been merciful there would have been no incarnation, no babe in the manger, no man on a cross and no open tomb.”
― A.W. Tozer
We will always remember that God is rich in mercy toward us. – Ephesians 2:4-5 But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ–by grace you have been saved.
We will know that we can cry out to God for mercy, and he will hear us. – Psalm 116:1 I love the LORD, because he has heard my voice and my pleas for mercy.
We will live in the reality of the living hope we have in Jesus alone. – 1 Peter 1:3 Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.