Followers of Christ will encounter questions about the relationship between God’s mercy and his judgment. These questions will certainly come from those are not Christians as well as those who are newer believers. And, if we are honest, those of us who have been studying our Bibles for years, we too have questions about the relationship between God’s mercy and his judgment.
In Genesis we see a man who has been faithfully walking with God asking questions and feeling heavily burdened about God’s justice. The setting is found in Genesis 18. God is about to judge Sodom for their “very grave” sin (v.20). But Abraham is concerned about the potential for some who are righteous in that city being swept away in judgment. In other words, he is concerned that God’s mercy might be eclipsed by his judgment. Earlier in the chapter Abraham learned that nothing was too hard for the Lord (v.14). Now, perhaps, God might do the unthinkable and judge the righteous along with the wicked. This tension between mercy and judgment is weighty for Abraham, just as it often is for us.
So what do you do? How do you reconcile God’s justice with his mercy?
Perhaps it is better to say, what do you not do?
1. Don’t Depersonalize It.
It is unhelpful to detach the reality of both mercy and judgment from real people and a real God. The weightiness of the matter is the intersection between a righteous and merciful Creator and his creation. We have sinned against him—all of us. To generalize this truth is to declaw it of its weightiness—on both sides.
2. Don’t Theologize It.
Instead of dealing with the tension some sanitize the conversation with theological language. The matter is theological, but theology is not to be done in test tubes; it intersects with real life and a living God. Abraham was overlooking a city that had the dark clouds of death hovering about it with angels marching toward it. You can’t sanitize this.
3. Don’t Liberalize It.
The Bible always means to draw us into a deeper understanding and appreciation of who God really is. The Word communicates the character of God. To declaw this passage of its tension in judgment is to cast a new God. We can’t simply mythologize all of the hard passages in the Bible any more than we can mythologize the hard questions of life. God is a God of answers even as we are a people of questions.
Instead, we ought to . . .
1. Allow Yourself to Feel the Tension.
I’m not sure if Abraham is specifically thinking of Lot here; perhaps he is. At any rate he is looking over the city like Jesus looked over the city of Jerusalem in view of her coming judgment (Lk. 19.41-44). Like Abraham before him, Jesus feels the weight of the coming judgment. I wonder what our prayer lives would be like for our lost family, friends, and cities if we felt the tension here between mercy and judgment. The ominous clouds of judgment still hover.
2. Pray Persistently.
With the announcement of judgment Abraham prays. He seeks answers, understanding, and wisdom. He comes to God with his heart tied in knots like a toddler’s shoe, asking his Father to untie it. He asks God eight questions because of this judgment. I love his humble, loving persistently. Treading carefully, he continues to pour out his heart in prayer. Would that we were burdened to pray with similar intercessory fervor.
3. Remember Who God Is.
Amid his lack of understanding he clings to what he understands: God will do what is right (v.25c). When there are questions the faithful can remember that they can trust God in the margin. God will always do what is right; we can be assured of it. This, at the end of it all, is our comfort. God will do the right thing—even when we don’t quite understand it. He can certainly be trusted.
Derek Kidner observes, “Abraham is feeling his way forward in a spirit of faith (superbly expressed in 25c, where he grasps the range and rightness of God’s rule), of humility, in his whole mode of address, and of love, demonstrated in his concern for the whole city, not for his kinsmen alone.”
Back to my original question. How do you reconcile God’s justice with his mercy? You don’t, because they are not enemies, they are friends who are not in conflict but in perfect divine harmony. Even though in our minds what is good and just may have some tension, in God’s mind these two are in perfect harmony. We can be confident that God will always do what is right; and what is right is also always good. Therefore we read and apply the Bible with humility, prayerfulness, and trust.
[Note: This post is an excerpt of a sermon preached at Emmaus Bible Church on 11/27/2016. The rest of the sermon may be accessed here.]