If you missed my first Reflection Paper for Liberty University’s Theology 104 class, you will find it here. My teacher graciously gave me 100% on this assignment.
Mercy & Judgment
Sometimes it is hard to understand how a loving God could wipe out entire nations in the Old Testament, not to mention destroying the wicked at the end of time. Some have said that perhaps God was a cruel Judge in the Old Testament, but became a God of mercy in the New Testament. Others say that Christ now stands between us and the angry Judge, pleading with Him to spare our lives. Yet, the Bible is full of statements that God’s “mercy endures forever” (New King James Version, Jer. 33.11). For the reader who takes God at His word, it can be difficult to reconcile the judgment of God with His mercy. As this paper explores the theological definitions, biblical foundations, and practical applications of mercy and judgment, it will become clear that God’s character of unconditional love is the motivator behind both mercy and judgment.
Theological Definition. “A quality of compassion, especially as expressed in God’s forgiveness of human sin. Scripture stresses God’s forbearance towards sinners. In his mercy, God shields sinners from what they deserve and gives gifts that they do not deserve” (Manser, 6686). ““Yahweh! The Lord! The God of compassion and mercy! I am slow to anger and filled with unfailing love and faithfulness. I lavish unfailing love to a thousand generations. I forgive iniquity, rebellion, and sin” (New Living Translation, Ex. 34.6-7).
Biblical Foundation. Mercy is an expression of God’s heart of love and is not limited to the New Testament. One of the best examples of God’s mercy in the Old Testament is His patience with the House of Israel (Mal. 3.6). Despite their sin, God still drew near to His people. Knowing that sin would be consumed in an instant in the presence of the pure light of His glory and righteousness (White, Desire of Ages, 107), He shrouded Himself in a cloud to protect them from His consuming glory. He gave to the Children of Israel the ceremonial institutions which were a daily reminder of His provision for sin. One such ceremony, the Day of Atonement, came from a Hebrew word meaning “mercy-seat” (Etzel & Gutierrez, 87). Time and time again the Children of Israel spurned His commands and turned from Him to worship idols (NLT, Mal. 3.7). For hundreds of generations the Lord bore long with them. Judgment was mingled with His mercy, for He allowed them to fall prey to foreign nations to bring them to their senses. Yet, even in judgment, the Lord was merciful. He sent prophets to warn the people, promised to stay the judgment if they would but turn back to Him (Mal. 3:7), and promised to fully restore them after their punishment (The Nature of Prophecy—week 8 online article). In the Old Testament, the best illustration of God’s loving mercy is His patience with His people.
It was this same God of love and mercy that sent His Son to the House of Israel in the New Testament. The substitutionary sacrifice of His Son was not for the Jewish race only, but for all who would accept the pardon offered them. Again, He is seen drawing as close as possible to His sinning people. Jesus came as a representative of the Father (NKJV, John 14.9), veiling His glory and power in human form instead of a cloud (Towns, Core Christianity, 8). Through His Son’s death on the cross, God made a way for the fallen race to be freed from sin, so that one day they could dwell with Him for all eternity. Towns points out in Core Christianity that in heaven and the new earth God will again draw near to His people to tabernacle with them and live in their midst (154), only now, perfected in righteousness, they will see Him face-to-face (Rev. 22.3-4). There is no better example of God’s mercy and love than the plan of Salvation.
Practical application. An important principle is illustrated in the parable Jesus told of the two debtors (NLT, Matt. 18.21-35): Those who show no mercy shall not be dealt with in mercy (James 2.13). The words of the King to the servant who had been forgiven his enormous debt but would not cancel the small debt owed to him by another man are quite poignant: “‘You evil servant! I forgave you that tremendous debt because you pleaded with me. Shouldn’t you have mercy on your fellow servant, just as I had mercy on you?’” (vs. 32-33). In our dealings with others, we should never forget how much mercy we have been shown. Though we may feel that our sins are small in comparison with others, such as murderers or rapists, we must remember that all sin is an expression of a heart that is at odds with the holiness of God (Etzel & Gutierrez, 67). If God can show us mercy and readily offer us forgiveness, we should extend the same mercy and forgiveness to others.
Theological Definition. “God judges the world by identifying and condemning sin and by vindicating and rewarding the righteous. God exercises temporal judgment on the world and on his people; final judgment will take place when Jesus Christ returns” (Manser, 9210). “I forgive iniquity, rebellion, and sin. But I do not excuse the guilty. I lay the sins of the parents upon their children and grandchildren; the entire family is affected—even children in the third and fourth generations” (Ex. 34.6-7).
Biblical Foundation. God’s love is seen even in judgment. Wiping out the wicked and unrepentant nations in the Old Testament was really an act of love, mercy, and justice. For example, the Amalekites were a wicked and idolatrous nation (Henry, 5). God sentenced them to destruction after they attacked the wander-weary Israelites at Rephidim in heartless brutality and without provocation (NKJV, Ex. 17.8-16). The punishment, however, was not carried out immediately. “For four hundred years execution of this sentence had been deferred; but the Amalekites had not turned from their sins” (White, Patriarchs & Prophets, 627). God in His mercy gave the Amalekites many centuries to repent of their sins and their un-instigated attack of His people, before He was finally forced to destroy them at the hands of Saul’s armies. Such it is with all the cases of God’s retribution on sin in the Old Testament: His love and longsuffering were mingled with judgment.
God’s judgment was not just a thing of the Old Testament. Recorded in the books of Acts is God’s judgment on the House of Israel. Long had the Lord borne with the Children of Israel. The Jews rejected and gave the Messiah up to be cruelly crucified, calling for His blood to be on themselves and their future generations (Matt. 27:25). Yet, the Lord still kept hope alive for His covenant people. The Great Commission was to begin with the house of Israel (The Greatness of the Great Commission—week 7 online article, 8). While many Jews were touched by the gospel message and gave their hearts to Christ (Acts 2.41), there came a point where the Jewish nation as a whole, led by its leaders, rejected Christ for the last time. God’s mercy had been exhausted, and in His judgment, He cut the literal House of Israel off from His covenant promise (NKJV, Matt. 21.43; Acts 13:46). No longer would a Jew receive covenant blessings simply by being born a Jew (NLT, Rom. 11:17-24). Now, the spiritual House of Israel is composed of anyone—Jew or Gentile—who has accepted Christ’s gift of Salvation (NKJV, Gal. 3.26-29).
Judgment did not end with Bible times. There is a coming final judgment upon the wicked, known as the fires of hell. However, contrary to what many believe, this is not a “place of eternal conscious punishment” (Grudem qtd. in Etzel & Gutierrez, 223). Instead, the Bible is clear that the fires of hell will occur after the millennium (Rev. 20.9), consuming all the wicked at once, annihilating and exterminating them, sin and all. “To sin, wherever found, ‘our God is a consuming fire.’… If men cling to sin, they become identified with it. Then the glory of God, which destroys sin, must destroy them” (White, Desire of Ages, 107). Here again God’s love in judgment is seen. Rather than torturing the wicked for eternity, “the degree of punishment they will endure [will be] based upon the nature of their evil work” (The Judgments—week 8 online article, 26). The fire will last only long enough to destroy sin, sinners, and the instigator of sin, until nothing is left (Mal. 4:1). It is true that hell is an eternal separation from God (Hell: The Eternal Abode of the Unsaved—week 8 online article). However, God is the only source of life (Gen 2.7); humans do not possess immortality in and of themselves (1 Tim. 6:15-16). Once the connection with God is completely severed, the wicked will be completely blotted from existence. God grants to each soul the freedom of choice to choose between Him and sin. Those who chose to cling to sin will be punished, but in a just and merciful fashion.
Practical application. It is so easy to judge. Far too often, I find myself readily passing judgment on the motives and intentions of others. It would be well for us to realize the seriousness of assuming the role of judge over others. The judgment we show to others is the same standard we will be judged by (NLT, Matt. 7.1-2). How much better it would be if we would leave judgment up to God, who alone can see the heart (NKJV, 1 Sam. 16.7). As Christians, we are to examine the fruits of those who claim to be sent by God (NLT, Matt. 7.15-20), but we humans can never truly know what is in the heart of another. The only person an individual should judge is himself (The Judgments—week 8 online article, 9). “For if we would judge ourselves, we should not be judged” (NKJV, 1 Cor. 11:31). All other judgment must be left up to God, who is merciful and just.
God’s mercy and judgment down through the ages and in the future are inextricably intertwined and guided by the principle of love. “I am the Lord, exercising lovingkindness, judgment, and righteousness” (Jer. 9.24). While God suffers long with the wicked, there comes a point where He must execute justice on their sinful deeds towards Himself and others. He would not be a God of love if He allowed such deeds to go unpunished; neither would a loving God deny sinners every possible chance. So, He waits; He pleads. He gives opportunity after opportunity to repent. He sends His servants first, then His son (Matt. 21.33-41). And when He is absolutely and finally rejected, in His love and mercy, He punishes according to sin and mercifully cuts life off altogether. Thus it is clear that mercy, judgment, and love are all compatible with the character of God.
Outside Works Cited
Henry, Matthew. “Matthew Henry’s Commentary – Verses 1–9 .” n.d. Bible Gateway. Web. 4 March 2015. <https://www.biblegateway.com/resources/matthew-henry/1Sam.15.1-1Sam.15.9>
Manser, Martin. “Dictionary of Bible Themes” 2009. Bible Gateway. Web. 6 March 2015. <https://www.biblegateway.com/resources/dictionary-of-bible-themes/toc>
New King James Version. Bible Gateway. Web. 4 Mar. 2015.
New Living Translation. Bible Gateway. Web. 4 Mar. 2015.
White, Ellen G. Desire of Ages. Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press Publishing Association, 1898. Print.
White, Ellen G. Patriarchs and Prophets. Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Publishing Association, 1890. Print.