God is love.
God is love, but love is not God. God is greater than His attribute of love. Too often when we attempt to define God exclusively in terms of His love, we make a cardboard caricature out of a complex being. God is not only love; He is also, among other attributes, just.
Justice is that quality of being that compels God to deal in perfect equity with all persons. He is, to put it plainly, perfectly fair. Many of us are, however, counting on God not to be fair. We are in fact staking our eternal lives on it. We hope against hope that when we stand before Him in judgment He will simply take off His attribute of justice, as though it is a garment, and say, “I forgive you.” We expect that He will deny His perfect justice in order not to punish us. Hitler, yes. But me? Surely not. I am, after all, “a good person.” You probably are.
Consider, however, that God is both infinite and eternal in His being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness, and truth. He is infinite and eternal in his love. He is infinite and eternal in His justice. He is infinite and eternal in all His attributes. And that matters. Imagine that you are having a really bad day, the mother of all bad days. As you’re walking home, you pass a homeless man on the street. He is drunk. He sees you coming, and is about to ask for money when, in a moment of frustration, you sucker punch him, knocking him flat on his back on the pavement. Despite your crime, it is unlikely that much will happen to you. He has no social power. He may not even remember what has happened when he sobers up. He may curse you through his shattered teeth, but little more. Now consider the same scenario. You’ve had the same terrible day, but as you are walking home, a well-dressed man in a suit is approaching you. He sees you coming and is about to say hello when, and in a moment of frustration, you sucker punch him, knocking him flat on his back on the pavement. You did not know it, but he is a prominent local businessman. He has connections in the community, and regularly plays golf with the local mayor. There will be consequences. He’ll press charges. You’ll be arrested. You will be fined. It might affect your job or schooling. You might even make the local news. Now consider the same scenario. You’ve had the same awful day, but as you are walking home, the President of the United States is approaching you. He has made an unscheduled visit to your hometown. He sees you coming and is reaching out to shake your hand when, and in a moment of frustration, you sucker punch him, knocking him flat on his back on the pavement. Now the consequences will be severe. His bodyguards will knock you to the ground, guns drawn. You will be arrested, as he is whisked away in an armored SUV. You will make the local and national news. You will go to prison for a long time; you will grow old there. Your grandchildren will read about you in their school textbooks . . .
In each of these scenarios, your crime was identical. Unprovoked, you punched a man in the face. Why then the staggering degrees of difference in consequences? As the dignity and power and authority of the one against whom you sin increases, so does the punishment. When the One against whom you have sinned is both infinite and eternal, the only just consequence is an infinite and eternal consequence.
In Psalm 51:5 David confesses, “Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight; so you are right in your verdict and justified when you judge.” David had done several awful things prior to this confession. He had committed adultery with Bathsheba, fathered a child through that adultery, attempted to cover up his sin, and ultimately orchestrated the murder of Bathsheba’s husband, Uriah, in order to protect himself. Yet when he confesses, David does not say what we might expect. He does not say, “Against Bathsheba and Uriah I have sinned, O Lord.” Instead, he recognizes that every sin committed against one’s fellow man is also a crime against God, in whose image that man was created. That is why James 2:10 teaches, “Whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it.” You only have to sucker punch God once—sinning against an infinite and eternal being—in order to merit an infinite and eternal consequence. In other words, you don’t have to be Hitler to expect trouble when you stand before God in judgment. He is perfectly just, and you—in your thoughts, words, motivations, attitudes, and actions—have been sucker-punching him for years.
Some mistakenly believe that saying, “I’m sorry” will be sufficient. Try that with a human judge. If I murder you, but genuinely feel guilty and regret it, and then plead to a human judge, saying, “Please forgive me. I am truly sorry,” he might well forgive me, but justice will require that I experience consequences for my crime. Sorrow does not do away with consequences in a human court, and God is more just than any human judge.
Christianity is fundamentally different than every other religious system on earth. In every other faith, people do stuff to try to earn God’s favor. They pray, give to charities, do good works, help the poor, etc. These all attempt to leverage God to forgive. Each religion teaches some form of salvation by means of my own hard work. I will do more good than bad, and God will be pleased. But again, try that in a court of law. If I have lived an exemplary life, but murdered a man in a fit of rage, can I then plead to the judge that I have done more good than evil in my life? Will he simply let me go unpunished because I have done good things also? No. I will face consequences for my crime, even if it is the first, only, and last crime I ever commit. The religions of men expect God to be less just than a human judge, simply to set aside His attribute of justice in order to be merciful. They expect Him not to judge. They will be sorely disappointed.
There is a different way. God is just, but God is also love. And in His love, God sent a Savior. This rescuer voluntarily came to stand in your place, and to take for you the divine consequences that you do not want to take for yourself. God has agreed to punish this Savior in your place, so that He can be perfectly just against your sin, while being perfectly loving toward you. This is the only way that we can avoid the consequences of our actions. There must be a substitute. That substitute is Jesus of Nazareth, and He is why Christianity is singularly unique. You can do nothing to appease God. You can do nothing to make Him forget the things you have done. You cannot leverage Him to forgive you, and He will not and cannot set aside His justice. But He can and will redirect it. If you come to Him in humility, and if you confess that you in fact deserve infinite and eternal consequences for sinning against Him, and ask Him to exercise His justice against Jesus instead, He will do it. Through faith in Christ, God will give the consequences of your sin to Jesus, while giving the blessings of Jesus’ obedience to you.
Christianity is fundamentally different, for it tells you that God is and always will remain perfectly equitable; He is a fearfully and wonderfully just being. But it also teaches you that so far from earning your way into heaven by your good works and prayers and charitable giving, you are helpless to save yourself. Into that terrible plight stepped a God who is a fearfully and wonderfully loving being, who is able to extend mercy to you because He extended the rod of judgment against His own Son. That is love.
After all, God is love, isn’t He?