The God Who is Just and Merciful

Behold Your God: The God Who is Just and Merciful | Isaiah 30:18
Brian Hedges | November 22, 2020

Let me invite you to turn in God’s word to Isaiah 30:18. This morning we are concluding the series that we have been in now for 10 weeks, called “Behold Your God.” For the last 10 weeks we have been looking at different aspects of the being and the character of God, and the overarching goal of this series has been to help us get a "big God theology," to see God in his glories, in his perfections, in his attributes.

The truth is that we could continue this series for another 10 weeks, or even for an entire year, because there are so many dimensions to the character of God for us to explore. I’m reminded of the hymn by Charles Wesley where he said,

“Sovereign Father, heavenly King,
Thee we now presume to sing,
Glad thine attributes confess,
Glorious all, and numberless.”

Really, the attributes of God, the glories of God, the perfections of God are numberless. He is an infinite God. “Great is the Lord and greatly to be praised, and his greatness is unsearchable.” Try as we will, we will never plumb the depths of the glories of God as revealed in Scripture.

Our focus for these 10 weeks has been to help us try to get a glimpse, at least, to kind of splash around on just the shores of the ocean of the being of God, to see more of who he is. Having looked at a number of God’s attributes now—we’ve talked about God’s holiness and his self-existence, his eternity, his immutability, his goodness, his knowledge, his power, his sovereignty—this morning I want to talk about two that we have not looked at directly so far in this series. I want us to look at the justice and the mercy of God.

What’s interesting about these attributes is that they are often paired together in Scripture, and yet in our minds there seems to be a paradox between God’s mercy and his grace on one hand, and his justice or righteousness on the other. But I want you to see that these are not contradictory attributes, and that in fact God is both just and merciful at the same time. Scripture makes that very clear.

For a launching pad this morning I just want to read Isaiah 30:18. The context is Jerusalem, soon to be sieged by Assyria, and God’s people, rather than turning to God in repentance, have sought an alliance with Egypt, so that they are seeking help from foreign nations and foreign gods. Therefore judgment is waiting. But God is calling them to repentance, and in this passage God shows, he reveals to Israel, his heart of compassion for them and his mercy, but also he shows that he is a God of justice. We see these two attributes together.

Isaiah 30:18, “Therefore, the Lord waits to be gracious to you, and therefore he exalts himself to show mercy to you. For the Lord is a God of justice; blessed are all those who wait for him.”

Right there, in one and the same verse, you see both characteristics of God: his mercy (he exalts himself to show mercy to you, he is waiting to be gracious to you), but he is also a God of justice.

I want you to see three things this morning as we look at this pair of attributes together. I want you to see that God is just and merciful, that God requires justice and mercy from us, and that God executes justice and extends mercy.  Okay, those three things.

1. God Is Just and Merciful

God is just. What is the justice of God? We might define the justice of God as God’s commitment to do what is right, to do what is just. Of course, as we’ve seen with all of these attributes, it’s not that there are characteristics or qualities which God defines himself by, as if these are extrinsic to God, but rather, God’s very being is justice, is righteousness.

To paraphrase 1 John, we might say that "God is righteousness, and in him there is no unrighteousness at all." God is a God who is characterized by justice and righteousness in every way.

Do you remember what Abraham said in the book of Genesis? “Shall not the judge of all the earth do what is right?” It is utterly impossible for God to do anything that is unrighteous, to do anything that is unjust. He is characterized by justice, by righteousness, by equity in every way.

But God is also a merciful God, and God’s mercy is his compassion. I like the way A.W. Tozer describes it. He says, “Mercy is an attribute of God, an infinite and inexhaustible energy within the divine nature which disposes God to be actively compassionate.” God is abounding in mercy. He is a compassionate, gracious God, as many passages of Scripture show.

I want you to just see that these two characteristics of God exist side by side, so to speak. They are both dimensions of the being of God, who he is intrinsically in himself; and I want to do that by just reading a few passages to you that show us these two characteristics of God in one and the same context. I’ve already Isaiah 30:18; let me give you a few more.

Exodus 34—do you remember this? This is when God has redeemed Israel out of Egypt, and the Israelites have committed idolatry, they’ve made the golden calf. God is angry with them, he’s ready to wipe them out, but Moses intercedes for them. Moses prays, God spares the nation, but he says, “Though you go into the promised land, I’m not going to go with you.”

Moses says, “If you’re not going, I’m not going. Lord, show me your glory.”

The Lord says, “Moses, nobody can see my face and live, but this is what I’ll do: I’ll place you on the mountain, in the cleft of the rock; I’ll cover you, and I will proclaim the name of the Lord and cause my goodness to pass before you.” That’s all in Exodus 33.

Then, in chapter 34, we actually have the moment where the Lord proclaims his name, he discloses himself, he reveals his essential character to Moses, and he does it through a proclamation of who he is and what he is like. Here’s what it says, Exodus 34:5-7. “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.’”

Okay, right there you have a whole cluster of terms that show us the mercy of God, the grace of God, the steadfast love of God. Here’s this God who abounds in steadfast love. Here’s a God who has a propensity towards compassion, to show mercy to people, to forgive their sins. But notice this, the next phrase, middle of verse 7, “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.”

Now, we read that and start to scratch our heads, and we wonder, “How can both be true?” How can he forgive sin and iniquity and guilt and yet not clear the guilty? You have mercy on one hand, you have justice on the other. They seem to be contradictory. By the end of this message, I think you’ll see that they are not, but they appear to be to us. How can God be both just and at the same time forgive those who have sinned against him?

Here’s another passage, Psalm 33:4-5. “For the word of the Lord is upright [another synonym for righteousness or justice], and all his work is done in faithfulness. He loves righteousness and justice. The earth is full of the steadfast love of the Lord.”

Here’s another one, Psalm 85:8-10. “Let me hear what God the Lord will speak, for he will speak peace to his people, to his saints. But let them not turn back to folly. Surely his salvation is near to those who fear him, that glory may dwell in our land.”

Notice this, verse 10, a beautiful verse: “Steadfast love and faithfulness meet; righteousness and peace kiss each other.” Righteousness and peace kiss each other. Where and how do righteousness and peace kiss each other?

One more verse. Psalm 116:5 says, “Gracious is the Lord and righteousness; our God is merciful.”

So, evidently, in the minds of the biblical writers and in the eternal, divine mind of God himself, there is no contradiction between God’s justice on one hand, his righteousness, and his mercy on the other. He is both abounding in steadfast love and yet he punishes sin. He is completely just in every way, no unrighteousness in him, and yet he abounds in compassion.

I think the reality is that this paradox or this apparent contradiction is one only in our minds because of faulty definitions and because of a lack of understanding of God’s revelation. I’ve been helped by the Scottish theologian Donald Macleod, from his book Behold Your God. Now, I haven’t quoted from this book elsewhere in this series, but I’ve been reading in it often and have found it helpful in many points.

Here’s what Donald Macleod helpfully states. “The antithesis between mercy and righteousness is a false one. The true opposite of mercy is not righteousness, but cruelty; and the true opposite of righteousness is not mercy, but unrighteousness or injustice.”

Okay, stop right there. God, in other words, is both righteous and merciful; he is neither cruel nor unjust. In fact, for God to truly be loving, he must be just. He must deal with evil.

Macleod continues, “A God who contemplated inhumanity with indifference or indulgence would not be loving. He would be amoral. And a universe presided over by one who would enact no sanctions against Belsen [one of the Nazi death camps] would not be lovely; it would be hell.” God must be a just God in order for him to be a loving God. He is both just and merciful.

As I’ve mentioned earlier in the series, when we look at the attributes of God in light of that classical attribute called by theologians the “simplicity” of God, that helps us. By the simplicity of God we simply mean that the attributes of God are all one. They are merely different features or facets of his divine nature, his divine being. So don’t think of the attributes of God as so many marbles in a jar. You pull out one marble and it’s love, and another marble is holiness, and another marble is righteousness, and another marble is mercy, and you put them all in the jar which is God, and you have this collection of characteristics which make up God.

That’s the wrong way to think of it. Rather, the being of God is like a diamond, with many different facets, many different aspects, and when we consider the perfections of God we are thinking about the nature of God, the being of God, as he is in himself, in relationship to something in our world in our lives.

For example, God’s justice is God himself in relationship to that which is right. His mercy is his being, his nature in relationship to human misery and need. His wrath is God’s being in relationship to sin and evil and wickedness. His grace is God’s being, it is his very heart towards sinners who take refuge in him. But there’s one being of God, and God being one in his nature, all of these different aspects of God are merely giving us windows into God himself and how he relates to our world.

2. God Requires Justice and Mercy from Us

God is just and merciful, and because he is just and merciful, point number two, God requires justice and mercy from us.

Micah 6:8 (many of you probably know this text by heart): “He has shown you, O man, what is good, and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God?” This is God’s basic requirement for human beings: to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with God.

The prophet Zechariah says almost exactly the same thing, but gives us a little more detail into what this involves. Zechariah 7:8-10, “And the word of the Lord came to Zechariah, saying, ‘Thus says the Lord of hosts, Render true judgments. Show kindness and mercy to one another. Do not oppress the widow, the fatherless, the sojourner [the immigrant], or the poor, and let none of you devise evil against another in your heart.’” Render true judgments, show kindness and mercy.

It’s the same language as is used in Micah, and then he applies it to what has been called "the quadrilateral of the vulnerable," these four groups of people that over and again in the Old Testament are shown to be especially in the eye and in the heart of God: the widow, the fatherless, the orphans, the sojourner or immigrant, and the poor. God cares about these people, and they are so often oppressed. They were in the ancient world, they are in our world today. God cares about them, and he says, “Do not oppress them.” This is part of justice, it’s part of mercy, that you do not oppress the vulnerable.

One more text, Matthew 23. Jesus here gives one of his most scathing rebukes against the religion of the scribes and the Pharisees. They were religious to a fault, overly scrupulous in the little details of their ceremonies, but their hearts were far from God, and they were not characterized by love for God or love for others. Listen to what Jesus says in Matthew 23:23-24. “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law...”

What are the weightier matters of the law? Look at this. “...justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done without neglecting the others. You blind guides, straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel!” There are dozens of other texts that show that God is concerned with justice and mercy, and he requires such from his people, he requires it of us.

What does that mean? What does it mean to do justice and love mercy? Let me give you some definition and explanation.

Doing justice means doing what is right and giving people their rights. It means doing what is right, it means living righteously ourselves, and it means promoting, caring for, securing the rights of others.

Now, I don’t think I have to defend the first part of that. I think all of us would agree that justice means doing what is right. You live righteously, you live with justice. But perhaps when I say it means giving people their rights, securing, promoting the rights of others, we might, some of us, object to that and say, “Well, is that really biblical language, to talk about giving people their rights? Do people really have rights? Do sinners have rights?” I want you to see that the Bible does talk this way. The Bible talks about caring for the rights of others. Let me give you some texts.

Exodus 23:6; this is part of God’s law for Israel. “You shall not pervert the justice due to the poor in his lawsuit. Keep far from a false charge, and do not kill the innocent and righteous, for I will not acquit the wicked. You shall take no bribe, for a bribe blinds the clear-sighted and subverts the cause of those who are in the right. You shall not oppress a sojourner. You know the heart of a sojourner, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt.”

Here’s another one, Proverbs 29:7, “A righteous man knows the rights of the poor; a wicked man does not understand such knowledge.”

That one’s kind of surprising. This is wisdom literature. It’s giving some perspective on what a righteous person is like, and you read that and you might think it would say, “A righteous man does the right thing in his personal life.” Now, that’s of course true, and other texts essentially say that, but here it says that “a righteous man knows the rights of the poor.” A righteous person doesn’t care just about his own rights, he cares about the rights of others!

I could give you more texts. Read Proverbs 31, about how kings are meant to defend the rights of the needy; or Isaiah 10, where there is a rebuke to those who write decrees of oppression that turn people away from justice and rob the poor of God’s people of their rights. There are more texts besides. So, doing justice means not only doing the right thing, it means caring about the rights of others.

Loving mercy, on the other hand, means having a heart of compassion for those who are hurting. Maybe the greatest biblical example of this (apart from Jesus himself) is in the parable of the Good Samaritan. You remember this story? Here’s a man who’s beat up by robbers, left on the side of the road for dead, and Jesus is answering a question, “What does it mean to love your neighbor as yourself? Who is neighbor?” Jesus is answering the question with a story.

He tells this story, and the surprising thing in the story—this is the sting in the tail, so to speak—is that the priest passes him by, the Levite passes him by; the person who actually stops and helps the guy by the side of the road is the Samaritan! The Samaritans were hated half-breeds; they were called dogs by the Jews. There was this deep racial, social divide. They were considered idolaters by the Jews. Here’s someone of another race, another religion, and Jesus says he was the neighbor, because he cared for the man by the side of the road.

Do justice, love mercy. That’s what God requires.

Now, when we think about application of this, I know that the issue is complex. You start talking about justice in our world today and it’s a complex, even divisive issue in our culture, in part because there are multiple competing definitions of what justice entails, and because people both inside and outside the church use the term “social justice” in different ways. In fact, some Christians don’t even like the term “social justice” at all, and immediately jump to the conclusion that anyone who defends social justice in any sense must thereby be abandoning the true gospel for a social gospel and recklessly abandoning Scripture for Marxist theologies about justice, economics, and oppression.

I want to caution us not to make that reactionary move. The truth is, people use the language of justice in different ways. There are competing ideologies and there are competing definitions, but, much in the same way as we use the word “love” in different ways. You talk about love, loving your neighbor and loving one another—you talk about that with anybody, Christian, non-Christian—anybody’s going to say, “Of course I believe in love.” But you have to then define what is love, and of course, as Christians we go to Scripture and we let Scripture define what love is. We need to do the same thing when talking about justice, but we certainly don’t throw out the concept of justice altogether; we define it according to Scripture.

I think the least we can say is that Christians must care about justice, Christians must oppose injustice in all its forms, and Christians must be predisposed towards mercy and compassion to those who are suffering.

To put a sharper point on it, the biblical call for justice means that we should defend the rights of the unborn, that we should promote the welfare of the poor, that we should prosecute those who perpetrate violence, that we should oppose the oppression of minorities, that we should show neighborly love to immigrants, and in general that we should be more inclined to listen than to judge those who claim to be victims of injustice or oppression.

What’s the default response of your heart when someone says that they have suffered injustice? Is it to feel compassion for them, or is it to analyze and judge? H.B. Charles, a wonderful Reformed African-American pastor, has said, “The Bible calls us to weep with those who weep; it doesn’t tell us to judge whether they should be weeping.”

Now, maybe I’ve said enough to offend everybody! But in a way, that’s the point, isn’t it? The biblical call to justice and mercy does not neatly fit into any of our preconceived paradigms. It challenges every political platform, every form of government, every theory of economics, every race, every culture. It calls us to a standard of justice and mercy that is not human, but is divine! That’s the point! It calls us to this standard of God’s justice and God’s mercy.

3. God Executes Justice and Extends Mercy

God is just and merciful; God requires justice and mercy from us; and then, thirdly, God executes justice and extends mercy. Let’s start with justice.

When we talk about the justice of God, of course we could look at biblical history, we could think about God’s providence, we could think about how God exercises justice in the affairs of men, and he does often do so. But the supreme demonstrations of the justice of God are really confined to two places. They are confined, first of all, to hell, where God will show his justice eternally and his wrath poured out on the wicked, and secondly, to the cross.

Let’s think about hell for just a moment. Hell, of course, is one of the most unpopular doctrines in the Bible, and perhaps one of the main objections that people have to Christianity is this: how could a good and loving God send someone to hell? How could a good and loving God condemn someone to an eternity in suffering?

Some people just try to get God off the hook and say, “Well, the Bible doesn’t really teach that hell is eternal,” and they try to reinterpret those passages. But they are wrong; it does. Here are some texts.

Matthew 25:41 and 46; these are the words of Jesus. He says, speaking about the last judgment, the final judgment, the division of the sheep and the goats, the righteous and the wicked, “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.’” Verse 46, “And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” The main thing to note there is that the punishment, just like the life, is eternal! Just as eternal life lasts forever, so the punishment is an eternal punishment.

2 Thessalonians 1:7-9. Paul is writing, and says, “When the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus, they will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might.” Once again, you see it: it is eternal destruction. There is an eternality to the destiny of those who are wicked.

Revelation 21:8, “But as for the cowardly, the faithless, the detestable; as for murderers, the sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars, their portion will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulphur, which is the second death.”

I could give you many, many more texts that show that the doctrine of hell, the doctrine of eternal punishment, is biblical through and through. Jesus spoke of it more than anyone.

There’s no getting God off the hook, and God doesn’t want to be off the hook for his justice. God is a just God. You need to think about this for a minute. What kind of world would it be if there was no justice for those who have suffered the cruelty and the wickedness and the abuse and the oppression of others? Do you want to live in a world where Hitler gets off free for killing six million Jews? Do you want to live in a world where there is no justice for the rapist, the murderer, the child abuser? Do you want to live in that kind of world? I think none of us do. The doctrine of hell is just.

Tim Keller very helpfully, in a sermon that he preached on the story of the rich man and Lazarus from the Gospel of Luke, asks this question: “How in the world could a loving God send people to hell? The answer is, the doctrine of hell is the most fair and just doctrine anywhere in the Bible. There’s nothing unfair about it.”

One of the ways you see that, even in the story of the rich man and Lazarus, is that when the rich man lifts up his eyes in hell, being in torment in the flames, he doesn’t ask for mercy. He doesn’t ask to get out! There’s no brokenness, there’s no repentance, there’s no acknowledgement. He is persisting in his rebellion.

The Puritan Thomas Watson said, “The wicked shall drink a sea of wrath, but not sip one drop of injustice. There will be no injustice, no unfairness, no lack of equity in God’s verdict, in God’s sentence, in the punishment of the wicked.”

What is hell? Here’s what hell is. Hell is not injustice. Hell is the justice God executes when his mercy is refused.

C.S. Lewis is also helpful on this, and if you’re struggling with the doctrine of hell, I’d recommend that you read both Tim Keller—there’s a chapter on hell in his book The Reason for God; you can find his sermons. There was one recently on his podcast, “Gospel in Life.” Articles online. Read Tim Keller and C.S. Lewis. C.S. Lewis—I’ll qualify, I don’t agree with everything C.S. Lewis says about hell. I want to give you a quotation from his chapter on hell in The Problem of Pain, and even in that chapter I don’t agree with everything, but I think he’s helpful in this particular insight.

C.S. Lewis said, “I willingly believe that the damned are, in one sense, successful rebels to the end, that the doors of hell are locked on the inside. I do not mean that the ghosts may not wish to come out of hell in the vague fashion wherein an envious man wishes to be happy, but they certainly do not will even the first preliminary stages of that self-abandonment through which alone the soul can reach any good. They enjoy forever the horrible freedom they have demanded, and are therefore self-enslaved, just as the blessed, forever submitting to obedience, become through all eternity more and more free. In the long run, the answer to all those who object to the doctrine of hell is itself a question: What are you asking God to do? To wipe out their past sins and at all costs to give them a fresh start, smoothing every difficulty and offering every miraculous help? But he has done so on Calvary. To forgive them? They will not be forgiven. To leave them alone? Alas, I am afraid that is what he does.”

Hell, you see, is the justice of God executed eternally on those who refuse the offer of mercy given through the cross of Jesus Christ.

Here’s where the good news comes in, friends. If hell is where God executes his justice when his mercy is refused, the cross points us to the supreme display of both God’s justice and his mercy. The cross is the place where God’s justice is executed and his mercy is extended.

Let me give you one passage, Romans 3:23-26. “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God—” Now there’s the rub, isn’t it? The problem is that all of us have sinned, all of us are unjust, none of us are really merciful in our hearts when untouched by God’s grace, so we’re all condemned. “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith.” That word “propitiation” means an atoning sacrifice. It means a sacrifice of atonement that satisfies, appeases, propitiates the wrath of God.

What Paul is saying here is that God gave Jesus to be the sacrifice for our sins so that Jesus could bear the wrath we deserved! That’s what the cross is. “...whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness [or his justice], because in his divine forbearance he had passed over sins.” Now notice this, verse 26: “It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.”

God can be righteous and merciful at the same time, executing his justice against sin and extending his mercy to sinners. Why? Because Jesus took the place of sinners. Because Jesus is our substitute.

There’s a story about two men who grew up together; they were students together, then they were friends, close friends in college, but then they went their separate ways. One of them pursued a legal career and eventually became a judge. The other’s life spiraled out of control, and he eventually became a criminal. Sure enough, this criminal found his day in court, and his old friend was sitting on the bench.

The judge recognized the defendant as his former acquaintance, and he felt both the responsibility to execute justice and compassion for this man whom he loved. The man had committed a crime, and he pled guilty. The judge condemned him. He couldn’t let the man off the hook, so he condemned him, and the sentence was a very steep fine, a financial penalty. Justice was served.

But when the session in court was closed, the judge came off from the bench and out of his own checkbook wrote a check that completely paid the fine, and thus his mercy was satisfied.

Now, that’s a very faulty, faint, weak illustration of what God has done for us, because we’re not merely old school-buddies of God; he is our creator, and we are rebels against him, deserving condemnation, but he loves us. He loves his people with an everlasting love, and because of the deep love he didn’t just take the fine, he took the full penalty, the full brunt of the eternal wrath of God! Jesus on the cross took hell! The judge was judged in your place.

John Stott says (and says it perhaps better than anyone else), “At the cross, in holy love, God through Christ paid the full penalty of our disobedience himself. He took the judgment we deserve in order to bring us the forgiveness we do not deserve. On the cross, divine mercy and divine justice were equally expressed and eternally reconciled. God’s holy love was satisfied.”

Where did righteousness and peace kiss each other? On the cross of Jesus Christ. Here’s the only real question, friends. The question, Where will the justice of God against your sins and mine be expressed? Will it be expressed in hell if we refuse his mercy, or is it expressed on the cross, where we receive the gift of justification offered to us freely through Christ?

“On the mount of crucifixion,
Fountains opened deep and wide;
Through the floodgates of God’s mercy
Flowed a vast and gracious tide.
Grace and love, like mighty rivers,
Poured incessant from above;
And heaven’s peace and perfect justice
Kissed a guilty world in love.”

Let’s pray.

Our just and gracious God, we thank you for the cross, we thank you for the gospel, we thank you for your love for sinners, and that in the great mystery of redeeming love you found the way to pardon our sin without in any way relaxing the standard of your holy justice. We thank you that you are both just and the justifier of the one who believes in Jesus, and my prayer this morning is that every man, woman, boy, and girl in this room would receive the gift offered through the gospel, that we would rest in Christ and in Christ alone, that his righteousness would be ours, and that the punishment, the condemnation that belongs to us we would see it as having been fully satisfied by Christ on the cross.

Draw near to us now as we come to the Lord’s table, this tangible weekly reminder of the depth of your love for us, this reminder of the cost of Christ’s sacrifice. Prepare our hearts to receive it, and as we come to the table may we come to Jesus in humble faith, and may you be glorified. We pray it in Jesus’ name, Amen.