Looking back I well remember the double whammy of hurricanes Katrina and Rita. First Katrina with a punch to the jaw, then Rita to the stomach. Wham, bam! Well — The story is pretty much known by now. But it does make for an interesting story that I’ll use as a prelude to this study.
The local churches were announcing no services. We thought that if anyone showed up, we’d sing a few choruses, have a time of prayer and then send everyone home.
That wasn’t to be. The phone began to ring. Betty would simply say, ‘We will be there.’ I thought to myself, “Why not tell them, ‘No services?’” Well, it gets better. Betty kept hinting that I needed to get a message together. Humph — I already had a message but who would want to hear about water baptism?
I went to the front porch. It was a bit cooler out there. ‘Lord, what can I say to the handful of folk that may show up?’ As I began to read my Bible, a Scripture leaped out at me. James said, “Mercy triumphs over judgment.” (Jm2:13) That’s it! I knew I had a message from the Lord. The anointing was in my heart. (God’s Word always does its work.)
Of course I still wondered if anyone would show up. They came, one after another after another. We soon had a pretty good crowd. Nathan played the piano and we sang choruses. The worship was precious. Then I began sharing what the Lord had given me. It was a heart-to-heart message for all of us. Tears filled eyes as the testimonies were given.
Well, it seems that Scripture just won’t leave me alone. So lets see what mercy is really about. And this has nothing to do with hurricanes. Let’s call this study…
Mercy Triumphs Over Judgment
At times I search the Scriptures to find an exact answer for an exact problem. Often I find that exactness doesn’t allow for much breathing room. What I see over and over is judgment and penalty. The Bible clearly says, ‘The soul that sins, shall die.’
Of course I stay quite firm on the security of the believer. But what about those believers who have so many continuous stumblings in life, and over the same issue? How about if the same sin keeps repeating itself over and over? Isn’t there a point where judgment must be exacted and mercy ends? Of course the answer to this depends on other variables. We will look at them a bit later.
The more I looked for exact answers, the more narrow I found the road of sin. Seems there is no way out and especially for repeat offenders. I pursue further — I look at adultery. This is a tough one. It gets even harder. Moses said that for this sin, both parties must be stoned, and that without mercy. Wow, no mercy!?
Does Jesus give respite? Hardly. He said, “Everyone who looks at a woman with lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” (Mt5:28) I think to myself — Lord, I don’t even want to go there. What to do? What to do? The guilt is pressing down.
How can Jesus say that to lust for a woman (vice versa) in your heart is equal to the act of adultery? How can that be? No one under the law of Moses was stoned to death for ‘lusting’ after a woman. Why did Jesus make it so hard to live for Him?
Ok — I’ve drawn the picture. Lets see if there is an answer to any of this. To further show this study I want to classify sinners into two categories, that is, the religious sinner, and the sinner-sinner. (No mistake on the wordage.)
The religious sinner and the sinner-sinner…
The most religious people during the time of Jesus were without question the Pharisees. No one could hold a candle to them. Lets call the Pharisees, religious sinners. (At least many of them.) Who then would be the sinner-sinners? These are the harlots, the tax collectors, the multiple marriages, the thieves, and all the rest. Keep in mind that the sinner-sinners of the gospels were also Israelites. They had just given up on religion. (Many discouraged or fallen Christians will identify with this easily enough.)
Anyway, what was the sin of the Pharisee? A religious sin can often be narrowed down to an issue of pride. It exhibits itself by leaving little room for mercy. It is the kind of sin that exacts from God, in saying, ‘God, You owe me. I’ve been especially good. I’m not like the sinner-sinner.’
The Pharisees not only claimed to be keepers of the Law, but they added law upon law upon law to make certain that the Law of Moses was well protected. How did all these laws affect them? Read the gospels. How hard they were. How judgmental they were. How without mercy they were. Perhaps not all, but this seems to be the general tenor.
We will come back to the Pharisee in a moment. Let’s take this a step further and see if there really can be a perfect religion, that is, a religion that is perfect in showing mercy. When Jesus had taught the disciples about dealing with sin in the church, it prompted Peter to ask, “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me and I forgive him? Up to seven times?”
Think for a moment. Peter was talking about a personal sin against himself. He felt there needed to be a point of cutting off. And so he reaches for the number of perfection. The number seven was the perfect number in Hebrew thinking. It meant completion. Peter felt to forgive a brother seven times was perfection. After seven times, it would be time to cut the brother off. (We are speaking of a repentant brother, not someone who refuses to make things right.)
Now, that really does sound like a lot of mercy. But now take note to what Jesus did not say. He did not say, “Keep a record of your brother’s offences. When he reaches 490 times of asking for forgiveness, you have multiplied mercy 70 times. You can then cut him off.”
No, that wasn’t even the point. If we are keeping records, then our own heart is not right with God. Jesus responded, “I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven.” (Mt18:21,22) Seventy times seven is a Hebraisms for, “You never stop forgiving.”
Ok, that says something to us about relationships, but what does all this say about God Himself. Does the Lord just keep on forgiving and forgiving and forgiving? The simple answer is, ‘You had better thank the good Lord that He does.”
Before going further, a point must be made. The forgiveness of sin does not mean there are no consequences to sin. Sin carries its own sorrows and destructions. Murderers have received the Lord’s forgiveness while on death row. This did not do away with the death penalty.
Well now — How about if we as believers break one of the big ten more times than one? The Lord deals with this issue by comparing the religious sinner to the sinner-sinner. Let’s listen in:
“And He also told this parable to some people who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and viewed others with contempt: Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax-collector. The Pharisee stood and was praying thus to himself: ‘God, I thank You that I am not like other people: swindlers, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I pay tithes of all that I get.’”
Have you been there? I have. When we are thanking the Lord for our blessings, we must take care not to get into the area of pride by comparing ourselves to others. Now notice the prayer of the sinner-sinner:
“The tax collector, standing some distance away, was even unwilling to lift up his eyes to heaven, but was beating his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, the sinner.” (Cf. Mt18:9-14)
Did you hear what he said? He agreed with every point made by the Pharisee, ‘I have been a swindler, unjust, an adulterer. I don’t fast at all. I don’t pay tithes at all.’ The tax-collector felt unworthy to even pray towards the mercy seat. The only prayer he could muster was, “God, be merciful to me, the sinner.” He was saying, “I am guilty of all.” How many times I’ve had to say, ‘Lord, I am guilty of all.’
Here is the essence of the parable. The Lord says,
“I tell you, this man [sinner-sinner] went to his house justified rather than the other [religious sinner]; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted.”
To be justified is to be made right with God. The sinner-sinner became right. The religious sinner remained unright. The sinner-sinner did not ask for justice. He asked for mercy. It is here that we see how mercy triumphs over judgment.
And the great lesson for the religious is that as long as we see ourselves as better than others, we stay with no justification before God. Mercy alone saves us. Mercy is the great truth of the cross. God’s very throne is called the throne of grace. Our instructions are, “Draw near with confidence to the throne of grace, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” (Heb4:16)
This brings me back to the issue of lust of the heart. Jesus came down quite hard in defining the true nature of sin, and yet I see nothing but mercy and compassion when He is dealing with sinners. The woman at the well had been married five times and was then living in adultery. The Lord did not tell her to go back to her last husband. Why? It is the because people have to learn to live from where they now are. Oftentimes there is no way to go back and correct anything.
Then you have the lady caught in adultery. The only one who had the right to condemn her to stoning was the Lord Himself. When all the men had left the scene, notice again what Jesus did not say. He did not tell her to go show herself to the priests to receive her due from the Law. He simply said, “‘Woman, where are they? Did no one condemn you?’ She said, ‘No one Lord.’ And Jesus said to her, ‘ I do not condemn you, either. Go. From now on sin no more.’” (Jn8) Is this another picture of mercy’s triumph over judgment?
Now the big question? Does continuous mercy imply that we should not expect to live a life of holiness before God? Not at all. We should apply all diligence to live to please the Lord in all respects. What it does mean is that while in this world we are subject to failures, and stumbling. Yet none of this causes the blood to lose its power. Nor does the Spirit of Christ ever leave us alone in sin. The Spirit continues the work of conviction to the point of bringing us to the mercy-seat for cleansing. And the Spirit also supplies power to help us live in a way to have less and less failures.
Back to the problem of judgments. There is a special problem that must be attended to when it comes to judging others. We tend to judge others when we are doing well; ‘Well, I would never do that!” How do you know you would never do that? Life isn’t over yet. And how often have you sinned in your own thought life and in your heart? Jesus said the sin was not simply in the doing, it is in what goes on inside us.
And how about when we do have a failure? Now the table turns. The very thing we thought we would never do, we did. This is why the apostle gave a certain instruction:
“Brethren, even if anyone is caught in any trespass, you who are spiritual, restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness; each one looking to yourself, so that you too will not be tempted. Bear one another’s burdens, and thereby fulfill the law of Christ.” (Ga6:1,2)
Once again, none of this is intended as a justification for sin. Sin is never right. Nor does God justify sin or say that it is alright to sin. God never justifies sin but He can and does justify the sinner. He does this through the cross. He can declare the repentant sinner to be just by the plenteous mercy that He alone can give. After all, Jesus died for all our sins. He in turn gave us His own righteousness.
Yet there is more to the issue of sin. The truth at hand is that believers will remain in the presence of sin as long as we are in this life. The continued truth is that sin cannot claim ownership over any believer. The Lord redeemed us, restores us, keeps us, and cleanses us when the cleansing is needed. The Holy Spirit is continually at work to expose sin and to bring God’s mercy and correction on the scene.
Yes, the hurt remains and the sorrow remains for a time. Yet it is sorrow over sin that reminds us of God’s love, of His grace, and of His mercy. We should have sorrow over our sins. Having a Godly sorrow is one of the great signs of true repentance.
Well — What does any of this have to do with two hurricanes? Nothing. Just needed something to begin my study with.
Here is a song that speaks to the heart of this study. Just a Sinner Saved by Grace.
May you gain all the joy that comes from knowing Jesus.