Every now and then I get asked the question “Why are you a Christian” by friends. It is a good question to be asked and to ask yourself. When I take the question seriously I come away with a greater confidence that the Christian faith is the truth, and that there are good reasons to hold to it. I want to take some time and put a few of my answers to that question up on the blog, starting with this one:
One of those reasons is that the gospel tells a story that reconciles God’s justice and his mercy without resulting in a world that is unlivable.
The Bible depicts God as both perfectly holy and perfectly loving. His holiness means that all his actions serve justice. His love means that there is infinite mercy to be found in him. This is fine as long as there is no sin, but that’s not the world we live in, so we have a problem. At this point the question enters: which side of God’s character wins out?
It seems there are three options:
1. God’s love trumps his holiness. His mercy wins out and nothing is unforgivable. We do not get the justice out actions deserve. There is no judgment for evil.
2. God’s holiness trumps his love. Justice is done and only the people who are holy like him escape getting what they deserve. There is only judgment for evil.
3. God denies neither part of his character, but both his love and holiness are upheld and fulfilled in something marvelous and unexpected.
People often wish for the first option and become angry at God that he is not more lavish with his love, and then reject him. When there is anything which carries even the slightest hint of divine judgment God is often also painted as the second option, and then rejected. The real Christian gospel tells a story of how the third option miraculously came true, and when I understood this, rather than causing me to reject God it became an anchor to my faith.
1. The God Who Is Only Mercy.
The wish for a God who is only mercy goes hand-and-glove with a culture who hates judgment and who defines tolerance as never saying anyone else is wrong. At first it is logical to long for this (isn’t unconditional, all-encompassing mercy a good?) but when you look closer the wish for God to be like this is wishing for God who is terrible and a world that is unlivable. This is to wish that God were not holy, or wish that his holiness did not matter to him so much. But who wants to live in such a world? Aren’t we all secretly banking on God’s holiness and his justice in the end? That there would be equality in the scales? That all the unpunished evil that has wrought such havoc and suffering throughout history did not go unseen by Heaven? That there is someone who has the power and goodness to make it all right again? Who also saw all the unpraised and unthanked goodness that has gone on in the world and will not forget it? Of course we are. If you have a God who is only mercy then there is an infinitely elastic line between right and wrong. God saves, but he does it by a shrug – by sweeping it under the rug of his mercy, which is there for the taking. It would go against his very nature to condemn evil in any real way that would amount to more than just shaking his finger at it. Who wants to live in this world?
2. The God Who Is Only Justice
So if we do not see (and should not wish for) a God who is only mercy, then does Christianity present a God who is only just? No. You can have a relationship with the Christian God, and you could not with a God who is only just. Why? If that were true of God then you would only be left with a judge. If he is an omniscient one, then he would know all the ways you have fallen short, even more than you know. If he is an infinite one, then even the smallest cruelty you commit against your fellow man is an infinite rebellion. Our sin would fit his magnitude, not ours. And if he is a just one then we would receive from him only punishment, for that is justice. Our sin does not seem to us to be such a terrible thing to merit such a judgment, but that is because we are handicapped by the fall. We are unable to see clearly either the ugliness of our sin or the glory of God’s holiness. If we could see our sin as God does, we would see that if God were any kind of holy at all he would have to be infinitely removed from that kind of darkness. But infinitely distant from a God who is only justice is not where the Christian gospel leaves us.
3. The Something Unexpected
Either of the first two options leads to God denying part of who he is, but this is not how any true mercy or justice is achieved. God is one. He cannot deny himself or any part of himself. If there is to be mercy or justice at all it must be in both his holiness and his love being upheld simultaneously, and that is exactly what the gospel says took place on the cross. As C. S. Lewis said, “On the Cross justice and mercy kiss”. God himself, in Jesus, pays the penalty his justice requires, which his creations earned for themselves but could not pay for themselves. Now his love is lavished on those very creations and his mercy is achieved at the price of his own wounds.
Christianity tells a story that errs neither to the left or to the right. It is neither only justice nor only mercy because it is both. And this makes a world that is worth living in. It is one where there will be judgment for evil, where there is a moral standard higher than ourselves and all will bow before a holy God. Then when that moment comes the hammer of judgment does not fall because God, in love, took the hammer’s blows on himself. This makes Christians both uncompromisingly moral and lavishly, radically loving.