The second article on God’s display of his character at the cross from The Good Portion: Christ.
How do you react when you go through trials you don’t deserve? What do you do when you witness the unfair treatment of another? In the current climate, what are you thinking about justice?
We often associate Jesus with mercy. A common theme in the Gospels is that he showed mercy to societies’ outcast. Tax collectors, those in poverty, and even lepers benefited from his compassion. We don’t have to linger long in the text to see examples of this aspect of Jesus’ character. But what does Jesus have to do with justice?
Scripture tells us Jesus is the “image of the invisible God” (Col. 1:15) and is the clearest revelation we have of the full character of God. Observing Jesus’ life, his death, and all that was accomplished in both pulls back the curtain so we can see clearly who God is and what he is like. In the last post, we considered that Jesus’ death on the cross revealed God’s holiness. But it revealed even more about God.
We know that because God is holy, he demands punishment for sin. Scripture refers to his demand for moral perfection as His righteousness and justice. These English words are how we generally translate the concept that God does not answer to any other authority for a code of conduct or moral standard. He does not answer to any lesser thing because he is the very definition of righteousness. No one and no thing is more morally pure than he is.
Paul explained to the Romans that ‘[Jesus’ death] was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins’ (Rom. 3:25). In what sense had former sins been passed over prior to the cross? In the Old Testament, God showed a tremendous patience toward his sinful people. In scene after scene of the Old Testament, God did not deal with sin as it deserved. His people both corporately and individually disobeyed him, and yet God continued to spare them. At times his wrath would burn hot, and He would send a plague, famine, or neighboring army to punish the people for their wickedness, but the problem of sin was not comprehensively addressed on the scale which it warranted. Their sins were often (but not always) punished, but their Sin was not. ‘The times of ignorance God overlooked’ is how Paul explained God’s patience in addressing sin (Acts 17:30). In His mercy, God continued to allow His sinful people to live. Even the prophet Micah laments the wickedness of the people and asks the legitimate question, ‘Who is a God like you, pardoning iniquity and passing over transgression…?’ (Micah 7:18). In praise the Psalmist repeats this truth about God, ‘He does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities’ (Ps. 103:10). These questions highlight God’s mercy, but how can a God who doesn’t punish sin be just?
But What about Justice?
After David’s infidelity with Bathsheba and his wickedness toward her husband Uriah the Hittite, the prophet Nathan rebuked King David, who in turn confessed his sin before the Lord. And then astonishingly Nathan responds, ‘The LORD also has put away your sin; you shall not die’ (2 Sam. 12:9-13). A first-time reader of this passage should gasp. David took another man’s wife and then had that man killed in battle, and the Lord just ‘put away’ his sin? Where is the justice in that for Uriah, or even Bathsheba? How can a good God not punish wickedness? One might be tempted to think God could just look away and disregard sin as irrelevant or unimportant whenever He wanted to, but that would mean He is unjust and does not treat sin as it deserves. The sinner would surely appreciate such mercy, but what about the victim? Where is the justice for the innocent?
God could not simply ‘put away’ sin and maintain His justice at the same time. He could not be a God of righteousness without comprehensively addressing the problem of sin. His patience toward sinners should not be mistaken for apathy toward sin. Back to what Paul wrote to the Romans: ‘[Jesus’ death] was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins.’ Jesus’ death on the cross displayed God’s perfect righteousness and justice. The sin, like David’s, that had been passed over for centuries was finally given the knock-out blow it deserved. All the sins for all God’s children for all time were laid on Jesus when He died, and all the world could see the glory of God’s righteous character on display as His wrath poured out for this sin.
The other way in which God’s righteousness and justice are clearly seen in the cross is by observing the lengths that God went to maintain this part of His character. The Father was willing to send His only Son into the world to die a humiliating death in order to punish sin in the way His justice required. For God to be a righteous and just God, sin could not be ignored. It had to be confronted. And punished. Jesus Himself was willing to suffer and die – even taking the punishment on Himself – in order to address sin in a way that upheld the character of God.
In recounting God’s faithfulness to generations, Asaph said of God, ‘He restrained his anger often and did not stir up all his wrath’ (Ps. 78:38). It is a myth that the God of the Old Testament is wrathful and angry, but the God of the New Testament is not. Just like it’s a myth that the God of the New Testament is loving, but the God of the Old Testament is not. In episode after episode, God shows Himself incredibly patient with, and merciful to, sinners for generations and generations. God waited to deal with sin as it deserved. At the cross, we see God’s glorious justice enacted toward sin as the God-man Jesus bore the punishment for the sins of His people.
What about Me?
Do you ever consider God’s justice when you take account of your own life? Do your trials ever seem ‘unfair?’ We can be confident that a God who goes to such great lengths to protect His justice is a God who is always acting in a just and right manner. We cannot complain that our circumstances are unfair when we look at the cross. Jesus is the only person in history who was punished when He deserved none. Would you reconsider your accusation against God as being unfair for the trial you find yourself in? Whatever the current trial you are experiencing, it has been designed by a just God to bring about your growth in righteousness–to make you more like Christ.
And yet, because we see Jesus’ death proclaiming our God who displays justice perfectly, we know we too should be people who care about what is just. We should be people who fight on behalf of those who are weak and treated unfairly. Our reputations should be that we stand up for justice when it is lacking, whether in the lives of individuals, corporations, or nations. As those in Christ, we should reflect the heart of our Savior – loving mercy and demonstrating justice.
Subscribe to this blog to receive Jenny Manley‘s next article on God’s display of his character at the cross. Read the first article here. These articles are excerpts from Jenny’s new book, The Good Portion: Christ.