The crime is not really that bad. A young toddler loves to tip over her glass of milk and splash in the resulting puddle. This act will not get her in trouble with the law. Still it is something that her parents don’t want her to do. When she tips her milk over, her mother says “no.” The toddler looks at her mother with a twinkle in her eye and a grin on her face which says, “You don’t really mean it do you? I know that you will smile at me and I’ll get away with it.” And it is hard for a parent not to smile. They love her so much, and she is so cute when doing this. She seems to be playing on these things: “I’m being cute and you love me, so you won’t yell at me.”
This is how we like to view our relationship with God. We do things that are wrong – we sin, but we know that our Father loves us very much and is merciful. God isn’t really all that serious about our sin because he loves us so much. But if that is how we view God, we have seriously misunderstood Him. In recent weeks, we have looked at who we are in our sinful condition. Now we look briefly at who God is. Exodus 34 tells us that God does indeed love us but he is still just and must punish us for our sin. Let’s read Exodus 34:1-10.
The people of Israel had been slaves in Egypt for many years. God then rescued the people of Israel from Egypt through the leadership of Moses. Now the people have left Egypt and are on the journey to the land of Canaan. When the Israelites came to Mount Sinai, God made a covenant with them. God agreed to protect them, provide for all their needs and they, in turn, must obey Him completely and give Him their full loyalty. However, even before this agreement is finished, the people break it. They made an idol, a golden calf, and began to worship it instead of God. God punished them severely and threatened to abandon them. Yet because of the intercession of Moses, God agrees to re-establish the covenant.
In Exodus 34, God renews the covenant with His sinful and rebellious people. He begins in verse 6 by stating very clearly who he is: he is “the Lord, the Lord,” which is God’s special covenant name. And he will now describe what he will be like within this agreement with His people. This is the kind of God they can expect to worship and serve. He is a God who is both loving and just. Of course, the God that is being described in these verses is the same God whom we love and serve today.
Let’s look briefly at the specific terms that are used to describe God’s love in verses 6-7. He first identifies himself as God. This means that he is above all else as the all-powerful ruler over all things. Moreover, God is compassionate. He sees his people struggling in sin and he desires to help them in their misery. He sees us struggling with evil thoughts and desires, greed and selfishness and he is compassionate; he feels sorry for us and wants to help us.
And He is gracious to His people. He showers His people with love even though they have no right to expect it. In that respect, God’s love is much like that of a parent to a new-born infant. There is a special bond between a new-born and a parent. But if the parent was terribly sad, the baby would not really care. The infant loves the parent for what the parent does for him or her. In fact, even if the parent would die, it would not really make that much difference to the infant as long as someone took care of her and loved her. We are like a little baby; we are so weak in our love, but God loves us anyway.
Moreover, God is also slow to anger or literally the Hebrew is “long of nose.” The background to this word is that when a person gets angry, he kind of snorts through his nose with an angry and indignant snort. In the Hebrew picture, God’s “nose” is very “long” in that it takes a long time for that angry snort to come out. When we sin, God doesn’t lash out, but waits patiently to see if we will change. God is also abounding in love. This is the over-abundant love that God agrees to shower His people with as part of the covenant agreement. And he is abounding in faithfulness. God is completely trustworthy; His actions are always reliable and certain. And God maintains his love to thousands who love Him and obey Him. Finally, God is forgiving when we sin against Him. He forgives the biggest and worst sin all the way to the most insignificant of sins.
III. Let’s now look at God’s justice.
Verse 7 states very clearly that God does not “leave the guilty unpunished.” He cannot just pretend that sin never happened and turn His back on it. Why? Because our sins are glaring and repulsive offenses in His sight. Our sins are like a rotten and foul stench that rises up to our noses. Once when we lived in Iowa, we detected a very foul odor in our garage. First, we thought that it was the garbage, but even after we removed the garbage, the odor persisted. Then we noticed that it seemed worse when my car was in the garage. Finally I did a thorough inspection of the car and found a dead chipmunk that had crawled in next to the radiator and was killed when the car started. Now we could have said, “Well, it’s only a little dead chipmunk.” But that stench would not allow us to ignore the small problem. We may think that our sins are not a big deal, but to God our sins are like an offensive odor.
In fact, verse 7 also points out that God hates our sin so intently that he punishes the children of those who sin to the third and fourth generation. That simply does not seem fair for why should I be punished for someone else’s sin? But what this phrase means is that God will allow the effects of those who hate God and who live in continual rebellion against Him to affect succeeding generations. For example, if a man gets caught after robbing a bank and his child grows up while he is in jail, that child will suffer the consequences. It is a sin that will affect his future generations. The point is that God cannot simply overlook sin.
That is what is summarized in Question and Answer 10. Q. “Does God permit such disobedience and rebellion to go unpunished?” A. “Certainly not. God is terribly angry with the sin we are born with as well as the sins we personally commit. As a just judge, God will punish them both now and in eternity, having declared: ‘Cursed is everyone who does not observe and obey all the things written in the book of the law.’” God cannot overlook our sins because he is a just judge who must punish sin.
Lord’s Day four points out two other possible escapes that people try to present to God. Some say that God is unfair by demanding that man do something he cannot do; that is, obey the law. “It’s not fair to put a blind man in jail on the charge that he cannot see. Sin has blinded us spiritually and now God is punishing us for being blind. It is not fair.” Question 9 of the Catechism asks: “But doesn’t God do us an injustice by requiring in his law what we are unable to do?” The answer: “No, God created human beings with the ability to keep the law. They, however, provoked by the devil, in willful disobedience, robbed themselves and all their descendants of these gifts.” It is our own fault that we are dead in sin.
“Ah,” but some say, “What about God’s love? Sure, God is angry with our sin, but won’t His love and mercy cancel out His anger?” To expect God to do this doesn’t make any sense. Would you who are parents do this for your children? If they did something wrong, if they stole something, would you cover for them and tell them you will just forget about it because you love them? Love would demand that you punish them so that they learn and that justice be done. Mercy and love cannot cancel out justice. Question 11 asks: “But isn’t God also merciful?” The answer states, “God is certainly merciful, but also just. God’s justice demands that sin, committed against his supreme majesty, be punished with the supreme penalty— eternal punishment of body and soul.” The result is that human beings are in a position of having no escape. We are guilty of sin and even though God loves us, God must punish us. But God, in His great wisdom, has found a way out for us.
IV. God resolves the tension between love and justice in Jesus Christ.
God displays both his love and justice fully and equally in Jesus! God shows his justice by laying all the punishment for all the world’s sins on Jesus. Jesus suffered that awful punishment when he suffered His physical death as well as the spiritual separation from God. God’s justice is fully served on Jesus. But God also pours out his love in Jesus as well by providing his only Son to die. Imagine you who are parents being willing to send your own innocent child to die by electric chair so that some cold blooded murderer could go free! You would have to love that murderer a great deal to do that. But that is exactly what God did in Jesus Christ. That is truly amazing love! And that is also our only hope for salvation. It is only Jesus Christ who can save us from certain and sure death!
Moreover, Moses also admits that the people would continually struggle with sin. That too is something that we too should be willing to admit. We continue to sin even after Christ comes into our lives. And yet Moses then prays that God will still go with them and guide them. We too need to ask that God will go with us even though we will sin. How will you respond to the God of amazing love and full justice?