God’s love versus God’s justice

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By Al Earley

Have you ever wondered about the people who heard Jesus speak and didn’t believe? They saw him heal the blind and said it was from Satan. They saw him heal the lame and they said he did it on the Sabbath. He raised Lazarus from the dead and they said he must die. How can you stand in front of the Son of God, see him do unbelievable miracles and not believe? That is the power of sin. We all struggle with it all of our lives.

The crucifixion of Jesus Christ is God’s action on our behalf to pay the penalty for that sin. This is known as atonement, when God gives Himself as the penalty for our sin instead of us receiving the death and damnation we are due because of our sinfulness. God is perfectly holy. There is no sin in God. God hates sin. We read in Psalms 11:5, “The LORD examines the righteous but the wicked and those who love violence his soul hates” (cf. Psalms 5:4-6, Proverbs 6:16-17, Leviticus 20:23, Hosea 9:15, Hebrews 1:8 to name a few). This offense against the holiness of God must be atoned for. God has made it clear in the Old Testament that the form of atonement must include a blood sacrifice. Thus Christ died for my sins, the just died for the unjust, that we might be brought before the throne of God cleansed and made whole.

The idea of atonement makes people uncomfortable. Isn’t God perfectly loving? Can’t God just forgive my sins and that be enough? The argument goes, “if God is unconditionally loving, then His death for the sins of the world cover all the sins of the world. All of them. So all are saved by the perfect sacrifice of the Son of God. The two ideas seem at odds, the love of God and the justice of God.

It is the death of Christ on the cross that reconciles both. Justice demands that a price be paid for the sins of humanity. If one of our judges was to let a murderer go free, paying no price for his crime because that was the loving thing to do, we would consider that judge to not only be unjust, but a monster unfit to protect society. So God paid the price for us all out of His perfect love for us.

“The cross is a fitting symbol of the atonement, for it represents the intersecting of two attributes or facets of God’s nature. Here it is that the love of God meets the holiness of God. The holiness requires payment of the penalty and the love provides that payment.” (Milliard Erickson, Christian Theology, Grand Rapids MI: Baker Academics: 1998, p. 835).

Here is an interesting story that illustrates my point. One evening a woman was driving home when she noticed a huge truck behind her that was driving uncomfortably close. She stepped on the gas to gain some distance from the truck, but when she sped up the truck did too. The faster she drove, the faster the truck drove. Now scared, she exited the freeway, but the truck stayed with her. The woman then turned up a main street, hoping to lose her pursuer in traffic but the truck ran a red light and continued the chase. Reaching the point of panic, the woman whipped her car into a service station and bolted out of her car screaming for help.

The truck driver sprang from his truck, and ran toward her car. Yanking the back door open, the driver pulled out a man hidden in the backseat. The woman was running from the wrong person. From his high vantage point, the truck driver had spotted a would-be rapist in the woman’s car. The chase was not his effort to harm her but to save her even at the cost of his own safety. Likewise, many people run from God’s provision of atonement on the cross, fearing what He might do to them. But His plans are for good not evil, to rescue us from the hidden sins that endanger our lives. (James S. Hewett, Illustrations Unlimited, Wheaton: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc, 1988, p. 37).

What does it mean to call God perfectly just? What does it mean to call God perfectly loving? What does the crucifixion of Jesus Christ mean to you? Can you explain why Jesus’ death on the cross brings these two characteristics of God together in perfect harmony? Do you understand why the Jewish sacrificial system in the Old Testament was important for the atonement of sins? Do you understand how Jesus’ death on the cross is the perfect sacrifice for the sins of the world?

The crucifixion and the resurrection are the most important historical events in human history. Everything we think, say, or do has been impacted by God’s action through Jesus Christ on the cross and through the resurrection. It is therefore important to understand what they mean.

Al Earley is pastor of La Grange Presbyterian Church. To find out more about Al Earley or read previous articles see www.lagrangepres.com.