Grace and Justice

Recently I was talking to a friend who expressed his dislike for the Christian belief that someone could theoretically carry out a life of wickedness and crime, come to faith in Jesus at the end of it, and then be forgiven for all the terrible things he had done, no questions asked. According to my friend, this idea seems downright wrong. Nobody should be able to get off the hook that easily. If you’ve been a lousy person, you deserve to suffer for your choices. Plain and simple.

Now I’ll admit that when I first heard this, I was tempted to give my friend a shallow, cliché answer and brush his concern aside. But after giving the matter some thought, I’ve realized that he’s exactly right. It really is a tragedy of justice for someone’s record of wrongdoing to go completely unpunished. My friend’s concerns were completely justified.

If we’re honest, we have to admit that there’s something undeniably scandalous about the gospel message in its proclamation that filthy, vile sinners can receive full and free forgiveness. When Paul says in Romans 8:1that there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ, one can’t help but say, “Well, that doesn’t seem right.” Any way you slice it, it’s not the least bit fair that bad people can escape their “badness” so easily.

All of this leads one to ask, “Where’s the justice in the gospel?”

If the extent of our gospel is, “God loves you and forgives you,” then I think we have to confess that there is no justice. A God who looks past the horrific wrongdoing of human beings might be many things (benevolent, loving, merciful, kind), but the one thing he most certainly is not is just.

But there is justice in the gospel, and we find it in this: “God loves you and forgives you, because Jesus paid the penalty in full that your sins deserved.” You see, God does not dish out forgiveness willy-nilly, just because he happens to be in a good mood on a given day. God grants forgiveness solely because in the death of Jesus Christ he has executed the full sentence of judgment merited by our rebellion and wrongdoing. Each and every bad thing we’ve ever done has been decisively condemned and punished at the cross.

Consider these familiar passages:

“He was wounded for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his stripes we are healed.” (Isaiah 53:5)

“For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” (2 Cor. 5:21)

“Without the shedding of blood, there is no forgiveness of sins… [Jesus] has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself.” (Heb. 9:22, 26)

Scripture teaches that our forgiveness is directly linked to the fact that God, in his perfect justice, has already poured out his wrath for our sins on Jesus. If we receive a pardon, it’s not because God decided our sins weren’t that important; it’s because God decided that he would bear their weight on his own shoulders instead of leaving it on ours. It was this very truth that our brother Abraham reminded us of this past Sunday: “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us” (Gal. 3:13).

Don’t settle for a one-dimensional view of the gospel that emphasizes grace but overlooks justice. Instead, embrace the wonderful mystery of this tremendous thought: We don’t get “off the hook” for our sins without Jesus first putting himself “on the hook” in our place.

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