Text: Nehemiah 9-10 | Listen to Message
When the grace of God and the righteousness of God are in tension with one another, what wins?
Have you ever thought about that? If God is righteous as the Bible says, then there are justly-deserved consequences to disobeying His law. There have to be. He can’t just pass over our sins or sweep them under the rug. He can’t “just forgive.” If God is only merciful all the time, He is not righteous. In fact, He’s not even good – not if He breaks His own standards of right and wrong.
So we have a problem in the Old Testament, in that God’s covenant people keep breaking the covenant. They keep wandering off into idolatry and rebellion. They keep traipsing God’s name through the mud. And after periods of judgment, God keeps forgiving them. He keeps giving them second, and tenth, and hundredth chances. He continually shows Himself faithful, even when they are unfaithful. He displays His steadfast love and great mercies time and time again.
Sometimes reading the Bible feels like watching a tennis match with an epic volley taking place between justice and mercy – and you’re just waiting to see where they ball eventually lands. Every time you think justice is pulling ahead (and God’s people are finally getting the judgment they deserve), mercy stages a fierce rally and wins the point.
So is that the solution to this tension between justice and mercy, between righteousness and grace? Will mercy and grace always prevail . . . at the expense of God’s righteousness?
If only there were a way to resolve the tension so that God could be both righteous and merciful![To my knowledge, no other religion even attempts to resolve this tension. Whether the 8-fold path of Buddhism, or the 5 pillars of Islam, or the 4 aims of Hinduism, or the 7 sacraments of Catholicism, or even the 10 commandments of Judaism, the emphasis is always righteousness over grace. And the conclusion is always the same: The righteous get accepted, and sinners get rejected. Good people are blessed, and bad people are cursed. And that’s terrible news for all of us. How can we possibly be right with God if He knows everything about us, and we’ve broken His rules in thought, word, and deed? What could we possibly offer to atone for our sins without belittling the majesty and glory of the eternal God?]
All throughout the Old Testament, God’s grace and God’s righteousness were on a collision course. God couldn’t go on being patient and merciful forever. Sin was piling up an insurmountable debt, and sooner or later that note was going to come due and someone was going to have to pay it.
That brings us to the Cross of Christ. The Cross says loud and clear that God’s righteousness had to be fulfilled – it had to be satisfied. But the stunning mercy of the Cross is this, that God said, “Let me pay your debt for you. Let me take your place. I’ll die the death you deserve to die to fulfill the Law’s demands against you.”
This is what the Apostle Paul is writing about in Romans 3:25-26: “God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of his blood.” In other words, God sent His Son Jesus to take the wrath and judgment we deserve. Why? “He did this to demonstrate His righteousness, because in His forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished.” Stop. Did you expect God to say He did this to demonstrate His mercy? But instead, He’s boasting in His righteousness here! He’s saying, “I didn’t forget to punish all those sins back in the day, I was just putting them on Christ’s record all along, so that he could pay them for you.” Keep reading: “He did it to demonstrate His righteousness at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus.”
“Behold my justice,” God says. “I have punished your sins according to my Law. But behold my mercy – for I have punished the Savior, who willingly substituted himself for you, so that you could receive only favor. Just believe in Jesus.”
Shedding the blood of the most valuable being in the universe is God’s way of saying: “This much I hate your sin, and this much I love my glory. Never think again that my mercy is cheap, or that it ever conflicts with my righteousness. Once and for all, I have vindicated the worth of my name. My righteousness stands forever in mercy for everyone who trusts my Son. (John Piper, “Responding to God according to His Word,” Carson & Nielson, God’s Word, Our Story: Learning from The Book of Nehemiah, p. 119)
That’s the whole Gospel in a nutshell: The righteousness and the grace of God collided at the cross of Christ, and both were perfectly satisfied by Jesus’ atoning sacrifice.