Today we’re going to look at one of the big problems of this world. You may think that the biggest problem that we face is cancer or poverty or war. Those are big problems. One of my friends once told me that he thought there are three great problems in the world: war, cancer, and parking.
I’m not sure if you’ve ever thought of what we’re going to talk about today as a problem, but believe me: it is. It’s my job to show to you why it’s a problem, and then to look at the passage today to see what can be done about it.
So here’s the problem. There are two character qualities of God that seem to be in conflict with each other. This is a huge problem, because both qualities are essential to God’s nature.
The first characteristic is that God is a gracious God. I love this about God, don’t you? This is the part of God that we are comfortable with.
The Bible tells us that God rescued Israel from bondage in Egypt, the most totalitarian and powerful world power in the world at that time. With a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, God delivered them. You’d think that Israel would be completely devoted to the Lord. Yet we read that while God was appearing to Moses, giving him a covenant that would bind him to this people, Israel was committing idolatry.
You would expect God to wipe them out or say that he’s had enough. But amazingly, God instead asked Moses to bring him new tablets to replace the ones that Moses had broken in anger, so that we could write the covenant terms over again. It’s a renewal of the covenant terms with a people who really didn’t deserve it. And in one of the most moving scenes in all of Scripture, God appears to Moses:
Then the LORD came down in the cloud and stood there with him and proclaimed his name, the LORD. And he passed in front of Moses, proclaiming, “The LORD, the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. (Exodus 34:5-7)
Aren’t you glad that God is gracious? Can you imagine if God treated us as we deserved after we had failed him? God is the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion, and sin.
So that’s the first characteristic of God: he’s gracious. There’s another characteristic of God that seems to be in conflict with his grace, however.
The second characteristic of God is that he is a just God. I told you how God responded to Israel when they made the golden calf: he revealed his grace. But his first response was different. When Israel committed idolatry by making a golden calf, God said to Moses, “I have seen these people and they are a stiff-necked people. Now leave me alone so that my anger may burn against them and that I may destroy them” (Exodus 32:9-10). You read this and say, “What happened to God’s grace?” God would have been just to destroy Israel. But how can God be just and gracious at the same time?
Even when God reveals himself to Moses, and says that he is gracious and compassionate, he also says: “Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children and their children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation” (Exodus 34:7). God reveals himself to Moses and says essentially two things: that he is gracious and that he is just. He says that he is just and must deal with sin justly, and at the same time that he treats us with grace and compassion.
All throughout Scripture we see God’s justice. We read of how God wipes out all people except for Noah and his family so he can start again. Near the end of his life, Moses says, “Remember this and never forget how you aroused the anger of the LORD your God in the wilderness…you aroused the LORD’s wrath so that he was angry enough to destroy you” (Deuteronomy 9:7-8). How do you feel talking about God’s anger? An anger that is so aroused that God is angry enough to destroy his people?
The prophet Malachi spoke of the day of God’s judgment: “But who can endure the day of his coming? Who can stand when he appears? For he will be like a refiner’s fire…” (Malachi 3:2). God is a God who cannot just overlook sin. He must judge it. God is angry at sin, and he cannot leave the guilty unpunished.
Wrong Attempts at Solving the Problem
I know that this is a problem that many of us have never even considered, but it’s a real problem. You may have actually tried to resolve this problem. People do this in two ways, generally.
Some people try to solve this problem by making a distinction between the Old Testament God and the New Testament God. They say that the Old Testament God was a God of justice, and the New Testament God is a God of love. It’s almost like in the Old Testament, God was grumpy, as if he woke up on the wrong side of the bed, but he somehow is in a better mood now.
This is a popular view, but it’s dead wrong for a few reasons. God doesn’t change. Besides, in the Old Testament, God says that he is the “compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin.” You see God’s grace written on every page of the Hebrew Scriptures. And in the New Testament, you see God’s justice. Jesus said, “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God’s wrath remains on them” (John 3:36). That was Jesus! The apostle Paul writes, “The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of human beings who suppress the truth by their wickedness” (Romans 1:18).
God didn’t somehow change into a different God in the New Testament. God is both just and gracious in both the Old and New Testament. There’s no difference. So saying that God changed somehow just doesn’t cut it.
I suppose the other way that people handle this is to think that God somehow sets aside his justice for a minute. A lot of people think this. They think that God says to himself, “Well, how should I react? Should I be just or gracious in this case?” And then he weighs all the factors, and sometimes he comes down on the side of justice, and sometimes he comes down on the side of grace.
I get why people think this, because that’s how it appears to us. There are times that we discipline our kids that we seem to have to choose between grace and justice. Sometimes we let them off without giving them what they deserve, and other times they have to face the consequences of what they have done.
But when you think about this, this approach also fails. The reason is because God can never set aside his justice without being unjust. Justice is essential to who God is, so God cannot temporarily suspend his justice.
You see, wrath is not God blowing his top. God is not angry despite his love but because of it. Becky Pippert writes:
We tend to be taken aback by the thought that God could be angry. How can a deity who is perfect and loving ever be angry? Just look at us – we manage to be very understanding and accepting of our flaws. We take pride in our tolerance of the excesses of others. So what is God’s problem?
But then Pippert helps us understand: “God’s anger issues from the intensity and depth of his love for us, as well as the height of his moral perfection and his outrage against evil.” It’s like loving people who are drug addicts. You love them, and yet you see what the drugs are doing to them, and you feel anger, even fury. She writes, “I wasn’t angry because I hated them. I was angry because I cared…Real love stands against the deception, the lie, the sin that destroys.” If we feel this as we see sin destroying people around us, how much more does God who made them?
Not only this, but it is right to be outraged by evil. A few weeks ago, Chris Brown allegedly attacked a woman. Some press reports suggest it has his girlfriend, Rihanna. A photo was released showing the woman after the attack. Her eyes are closed, and there are visible contusions on her forehead, cheeks and mouth. People who have seen the pictures have reacted with outrage and anger, and this is right. There is no adequate way to respond to this sort of attack without expressing anger against the injustice.
Almost a year ago, security cameras caught the killing of an 18-year-old man in Toronto. Police said the victim was an innocent man with no ties to gangs. A pair was arrested and charged with first-degree murder. You can actually watch the murder on video that was released by police. But this week, the charges were withdrawn, and the alleged killers walked free. The news story I read ends with this: “Outside court this morning, friends of the victim’s family expressed outrage and disgust over the withdrawal of the charges.” You can’t help feel anger that justice will probably never be served by the courts after the murder of an innocent man.
If we feel outrage at injustice, how much more is this true for a perfect and holy God? Again, Pippert writes that God can’t just play fast and loose and say, “Oh, never mind. Boys will be boys.”
Try telling that to a surviver of the Cambodian “killing fields” or to someone who lost an entire family in the Holocaust!
No. To be truly good one has to be outraged by evil and utterly and implacably hostile to injustice. No one can call themselves good and have an iota of indifference to evil of any sort. (Hope Has Its Reasons)
So we have a God who cannot be anything but just. It’s not like God changes in the New Testament, and it’s not like God can temporarily suspend his justice. It’s right for him to be angry with sin, both because of what it does to us and because it calls for outrage.
This brings us back to our problem, then. In human terms, there is no conceivable way for God to be both just and gracious at the same time. Nor would we want either one to change. If God ceased to be just, then he would also have to stop hating the things that destroy us. Not only that, but then there would be no ultimate justice in this world. Knowing that God is just enables us to deal with injustice, because we know that ultimately there is no injustice, because everyone will have to answer to God. It is inconceivable that God should cease to be just.
But if God is not gracious, then we are all in a whole lot of trouble. If God is only just, then nobody stands a chance. We all deserve God’s wrath. If God is not gracious, we’re all in a trouble.
How can God be both just and gracious at the same time? It appears to be an unsolvable problem – except Abraham in today’s passage finds a way through.
The Solution to the Problem
In the passage that we read this morning, Abraham understands this dilemma, this seemingly unsolvable problem. Abraham knows that God is a God of justice. When Abraham went to Egypt with his wife, he told people that Sarah, his wife, was really his sister. Pharaoh took Sarah into his household, not knowing that he was taking Abraham’s wife. He didn’t even know that what he was doing was wrong. We read, “the LORD inflicted serious diseases on Pharaoh and his household because of Abram’s wife Sarai” (Genesis 12:17). That’s how God responds in justice when someone does wrong out of ignorance. How is he going to react when it’s willful? Abraham knew about God’s justice.
Abraham also knew about God’s grace. God told Abraham that it was his intention to bless the entire earth through Abraham. Not only that, but God had already reacted to Abraham’s failures with grace. Abraham had already messed up severely at least twice, but God had responded with grace.
So when God tells Abraham that he is about to investigate the injustice in Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham knows that justice is necessary. They’re places of great wickedness, full of injustice and oppression. They’re inhospitable places where you can’t even visit without being concerned for your safety. What was so bad about them?The prophet Ezekiel wrote years later:
Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy. They were haughty and did detestable things before me. Therefore I did away with them as you have seen. (Ezekiel 16:49-50)
So Abraham knows there is going to be trouble for these cities. Justice demands that God respond in judgment.
But Abraham also wants God’s grace. At first glance, it just looks like Abraham is only looking out for his nephew Lot. But there’s more to it than that. Abraham is about to boldly intercede on behalf of the cities before God. If Abraham wanted to get Lot and his family out, it would have been much easier. He would have just said, “Go ahead and destroy the cities, but could you at least save the life of my nephew and his family?” Instead, Abraham pleads on behalf of both cities.
What you see Abraham doing is pleading with God on the basis of theology. He bases his argument on God’s justice:
Will you sweep away the righteous with the wicked? What if there are fifty righteous people in the city? Will you really sweep it away and not spare the place for the sake of the fifty righteous people in it? Far be it from you to do such a thing–to kill the righteous with the wicked, treating the righteous and the wicked alike. Far be it from you! Will not the Judge of all the earth do right? (Genesis 18:23-25)
You see what he’s doing here? He’s pleading with God for grace on the basis of God’s justice. It’s brilliant. Because God is just, Abraham says, can the record of the righteous few not be enough to save the entire city?
Abraham got that guilt can be shared by everyone. You and I know this. If someone in our family goes off the tracks, we all feel responsible. We all carry the weight and ask ourselves what we could have been differently. But Abraham switches it. He asks God if the righteousness of a few is not enough to save the many, and amazingly, God says yes. The wicked can be saved by the righteousness of the few. And Abraham bargains him down from 50 to 45 to 40 to 30 to 20 and finally to 10. If there are 10 righteous people, then the many will be saved.
And in one of the most astonishing developments, it’s left at 10, and Abraham goes home, and Sodom and Gomorrah are destroyed. Why? Why does Abraham stop where he does? We don’t know for sure, but it seems that Abraham might have recognized that there weren’t enough righteous people in the cities to save them.
But don’t miss what Abraham did. Abraham solved the unsolvable problem. He found a way through. Abraham discovered a way that God could be both just and gracious at the same time: that based on God’s justice in recognizing the righteousness of a few, he could extend grace to those who deserved only judgment.
What Abraham didn’t say is this: Suppose there is one righteous man. Suppose there is one who is so righteous that his record is enough to save the many who are wicked? And in one of the most incredible acts of both justice and grace, there was one righteous person who came to earth. And God essentially said, for the sake of this one I will not destroy the wicked.
Justice demands that sin be dealt with. The wages of sin is death, and the wages must be paid. God would not be just if the penalty is not paid. But Jesus, God’s own Son, willingly choose to come to earth to pay that penalty himself. For all who trust him, he takes all their sins, and he offers all of his righteousness. The righteousness of one is enough to save the wickedness of many. And on the basis of God’s justice, he cannot demand payment for sin twice.
Abraham found a way to solve this unsolvable problem, but he couldn’t get all the way there. But Jesus did. And at the cross, God’s perfect justice and his amazing grace met, and both were fully satisfied. God’s justice and grace meet in one righteous person.
So Father, we thank you for this amazing grace. We thank you that Jesus taught that all Scripture is about him. And in this passage we so clearly see our predicament: that we deserve your wrath but need your grace.
And we thank you that through Jesus this problem has been solved. Perfect justice has been done, and undeserving sinners receive your grace. May you bring us to the cross, and may we live as people who have been saved through the righteousness of one person. In Jesus’ name, Amen.