Sinners in the Hands of a Merciful God
August 25, 2006
Earlier this week I received a copy of John Ensor’s book The Great Work of the Gospel. In the first chapter, he examines the question, What motivates God to make the astonishing offer to forgive all our sins? Taking his cue from Jonathan Edwards, Ensor says it’s all about God’s mercy:
God desires to make his mercythe apex of his own glory in the eyes of all creation. It is the ultimate reason for the creation of the world and the plan of redemption. It is the ultimate reason we should believe he is ready to do a great work of grace in us! (p. 28)
This was a brand-new thought to me. I had never before considered that God desires to make mercy “the apex of his own glory.” Ensor expands this thought by quoting something Dana Olson wrote:
Prior to creation God had no means of revealing one pinnacle attribute of his glory, mercy. While he could within the fellowship of the Trinity express love and maintain justice, mercy inherently requires some injustice or inadequacy before loving-kindness can be expressed in forgiveness. For this reason God set in motion redemptive history–to manifest his glory by revealing this very capacity to redeem, mercy. (p. 28)
In order to display his mercy, two things had to happen:
1) God created a world that fell into sin.
2) God in mercy sent his Son to redeem that fallen world.
Without sin there can be no mercy because misery is seen most clearly where sin is most abundant. That is why God endures with great patience the disobedient because without the disobedient there could be no forgiveness, and without forgiveness there could be no display of mercy.
I. Mercy Explained
As I say, this was a new thought to me, but new or not, it strikes me as eminently biblical. Mercy is an attribute of God’s character. 1 Chronicles 21:13 tells us that “his mercy is very great.” Nehemiah 9:31 speaks of “your great mercy.” Luke 1:78 tells us that Christ came because of the “tender mercies” of our God. Romans 9:16 says that God’s election springs from God’s mercy. Ephesians 2:4 says that God is “rich in mercy.” And Hebrews 4:16 tells us that when we come to Jesus in prayer, we are coming to a throne of grace where we receive mercy and find grace. According to Titus 3:5, God saved us because of his mercy. James 5:11 declares that “The Lord is full of compassion and mercy.”
The quality of mercy is not strained;
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven.
These famous lines from The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare are true in every way. Mercy always comes down. It starts with God and moves to man; it begins in heaven and ends on earth. You don’t bargain for mercy because to make a bargain you’ve got to have something to offer, and we have nothing to offer God.
When Paul comes to the end of his discussion of Israel’s unbelief (Romans 9-11), he concludes with these three verses:
Just as you who were at one time disobedient to God have now received mercy as a result of their disobedience, so they too have now become disobedient in order that they too may now receive mercy as a result of God’s mercy to you. For God has bound all men over to disobedience so that he may have mercy on them all (Romans 11:30-32).
Note that one word appears four times and another word appears four times in two different forms:
Paul’s flow of thought can be hard to follow, but his bottom line is crystal clear: God uses disobedience as an opportunity to display his mercy. Remember that his main point in Romans 9-11 is to understand how God’s purposes are being worked out through Israel’s unbelief in her Messiah, the Lord Jesus Christ. He has already said that Israel has not been cast away and their failure to believe is not final. He goes so far as to predict that in the last days “all Israel will be saved” (v. 26). Now he offers his ultimate conclusion. As he ponders the ways of God in history, Paul sees a vast purpose unfolding in five movements:
# 1: The Gentiles disobeyed.
# 2: The Jews received God’s favor.
# 3: The Jews disobeyed by rejecting Jesus.
# 4: Their disobedience opened the door for the Gentiles.
# 5: The Jews will yet receive God’s mercy.
Everything about #s 1-4 has been proven true in history. Before Abraham (Genesis 1-11), the whole world fell into such sin that it was destroyed with a flood, and the nations were scattered at Babel. Then God called Israel into being and gave her a favored place among the nations, yet their greater blessing meant they would face greater judgment (Amos 3:2). When Israel (through its leaders) rejected Christ, God sent a “hardening in part” (Romans 11:25) upon Israel that has caused the Jewish people to be resistant to the gospel. As the gospel went forth in the first century, the apostles in every city started by preaching in the synagogues, but almost always they found a better hearing among the Gentiles. Though the early church was once 100% Jewish, it soon became almost 100% Gentile and has remained that way for 2000 years. But that is not the end of the story. A day is coming when a fountain will be opened for the nation, they will look upon him whom they pierced, they will mourn over their sin, and “all Israel will be saved.” This means that God intends to bring about a vast conversion to Christ among the Jewish people in the last days.
We will not properly understand this stunning passage unless we see that Paul is not simply saying, “This is what happened.” He is really saying, “This is what God intended should happen.” God worked through the disobedience of the Jews in order to display his mercy to the disobedient Gentiles, and that same mercy is meant to stir up envy among the Jews so that they will long to experience that same mercy themselves.
But we have not yet considered his conclusion in verse 32.“For God has bound all men over to disobedience so that he may have mercy on them all.” The verb “bound over” means to put in prison.
God is the judge.
Unbelievers are the prisoners.
Unbelief is the prison.
Sin and corruption are the chains.
Learn what this is saying, and marvel at God’s wisdom. Before God Jew and Gentile stand on exactly the same ground. We like to say in America, “All men are created equal,” but we don’t really believe it. In the world there are always those who are “more equal” than others. But in Paul’s eyes both Jew and Gentile share a cell in the prison house of sin. The Jew has a favored place in God’s plan, but that favored place can’t buy his freedom. The Gentile is an idolater who on his own will never get out of jail. Paul has said the same thing in chapter 3: “What shall we conclude then? Are we any better? Not at all! We have already made the charge that Jews and Gentiles alike are all under sin” (v. 9). Who has the advantage in the eyes of God? Do the Jews get a special dispensation from the Almighty? Is it us? Is it them? Is it some other group? Answer: No one is better off. We’re all sinners before God. Paul is teaching us the universality of sin. It has infected every part of the human race. No group is exempt. The Jews are guilty, the Gentiles are guilty, the moral man is guilty, the religious man is guilty. To make it more personal, the rich man is guilty—but so is the poor man. Men are guilty—and so are women. It matters not how you divide the human race. All are guilty before God. The key phrase is “under sin,” a military term that means to be under the authority of someone else. It was used for soldiers who were under the authority of a commanding officer. It means to be under the control of someone else or something else. In that case, it means that the human race is under the domination of sin. We are all part of the “Empire of Sin.” Man outside of Christ is under the control of sin and is helpless to escape from it.
This is our number one problem. Sin is our problem. It is not the symptom, but the disease itself. Any solution to the human predicament that does not deal with the sin question is like putting a Band-Aid on cancer.
The whole human race has become a massive wreck. When we stand back and survey the devastation, the brokenness, the pain, the misery, the sadness, the hopeless despair, when we see the endless sea of human suffering that stretches in every direction as far as the eye can see, we cry out, “Oh God, where are you? Why did you let this happen?” And the answer comes from heaven: “I let this happen in order that I might display my mercy for all the world to see.”
II. Mercy Illustrated
Jesus told a story in Luke 18:9-14 that helps us understand God’s mercy on a very basic level. Two men went to the temple to pray. One man was a Pharisee; the other was a tax collector. In that day Pharisees were admired by most people because of their piety while tax collectors were regarded as scoundrels and crooks. When the Pharisee prayed, he bragged about his own righteousness, as if God owed him something. But when the tax collector prayed, he felt so burdened about his sin that he stood at a distance, kept his head bowed, beat his chest, and cried out, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” The Greek reads this way: “God be merciful to me, the sinner.” As if he were saying, “I am the chief of all sinners. I am the worst of all sinners. I am as bad as bad can be.” And when he said, “God be merciful to me the sinner,” we are to understand that the people who heard him pray said, “Amen. That’s right, brother. You are the worst of all possible sinners.”
Here we have the paradox of this story: A man as good as you can be on a moral basis. A man as bad as you can be in terms of the morality of this world. It’s as if Jesus told a story and said, “Over here we have a Supreme Court Justice and over there we have a rapist. Over here we have the president and over there we have a prostitute.”
The shock of this story is that the good man ends up lost and the bad man ends up saved. Call it the ultimate reversal of fortunes.<
“Be Propitiated to Me”
Why was the bad man saved? The bad man was saved because of what he said when he prayed. He prayed “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” God –he prayed to the right person. Have mercy–he made the right request. To me a sinner–he made the right confession.
Notice his basic request. “Have mercy on me.” Literally, you could translate it, “God be propitiated to me.” Propitiation means to turn away wrath by the offering of a gift. He was praying for the propitiatory mercy of God to be extended to him.
The word is the verb form of the noun that means “mercy seat.” If you could say it this way, it is as if he is saying, “God, be mercy-seated to me.” What does that mean? It’s a picture from the Old Testament. In the tabernacle, inside the Holy of Holies, there was a small chest called the Ark of the Covenant. It was the most holy and sacred object in the Jewish religion. It was a box about a yard long and a foot and a half wide. Inside this box were the tablets of the Ten Commandments–the Law of God, the standard by which God would judge humanity.
The Blood of Forgiveness
The lid of the Ark of the Covenant was called the Mercy Seat. Two golden cherubim were on top of the Mercy Seat and their wings spread over it and in the space where the wings almost met was where the presence of God would dwell with his people. Once a year, on the Day of Atonement, the high priest would slaughter a goat and with the blood of the goat he would enter the Holy of Holies. There he would take the blood of the goat and sprinkle it on that golden lid called the Mercy Seat. When he sprinkled the blood on the Mercy Seat, the sins of the people were forgiven for another year.
What is the meaning of that act? When God looked down from heaven, he saw the law by which he would judge his people. But they had broken the Law of God. Whenever God looked down and saw the Ten Commandments, that was a sign to him that his people deserved judgment, penalty and punishment, and as long an nothing came between him and his law, his people would be punished. But when the blood was sprinkled on the Mercy Seat, God saw the blood of the sacrificial substitute, and by virtue of that blood and what it represented, he turned away his judgment and his anger and he forgave the sins of the people.
That’s what it means to be mercy-seated. The tax collector was praying, “God, be to me as you are when you look down and see the blood shed on the mercy seat.” He was praying, “O God, be merciful to me not on the basis of what I have done but on the basis of the blood shed by the substitute.”
A Scoundrel Saved By the Blood
What does that blood on the Mercy Seat point to in the New Testament? It points to our Lord Jesus Christ who shed his blood so that the sins of the world could be forgiven. Do you want to know what the situation is now? God is in heaven and we are on earth. If nothing comes between us and God, we are going to be judged and the whole human race will be damned. But something has come between God and the human race–something good. Do you know what it is? It is the sprinkling of the blood of God’s Son, the Lord Jesus Christ. And now, by virtue of the blood of the Lord Jesus Christ, you and I can have our sins forgiven. Not in our own merit but by virtue of what Jesus Christ has done for us. And that’s what the tax collector was praying for.
In light of the cross, we can say it this way. That bad man who had wasted his life, that scoundrel, that crook, that cheat, came to God and prayed, “O God be merciful to me on the basis of the sacrifice of your Son the Lord Jesus Christ. God be merciful to me a sinner. God forgive me, not because of what I have done, not because I deserve it, but by virtue of the sprinkled blood of your Son the Lord Jesus Christ.”
III. Mercy Applied
Several years ago I read Elisabeth Elliott’s fine book Keep a Quiet Heart. In one of the chapters she discusses the “Jesus Prayer.” It is a prayer that arose in the Orthodox tradition over 1,000 years ago. Though the prayer appears in various wordings, its most basic form goes like this: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me.” Ten short words, all of them simple and easy to understand. Sometimes the phrase “a sinner” is added to emphasize the petitioner’s deep personal need. When praying together, the word “us” is substituted for “me.” Orthodox Christians have used this little prayer as a central part of their devotional life for centuries.
It is easy to see why this prayer has endured. In a sense, it covers everything that we might pray for. It is a prayer addressed to the right Person-“Lord Jesus Christ,” in the right Position-“Son of God.” And its one request summarizes all that we might ask from the Lord-“Have mercy on me.” Since we are truly sinners before the Lord, anything he does for us must be an act of mercy. We have no claim on anything the Lord has, and if we approach God thinking that he owes us something, our prayers will bounce off the ceiling and hit us on the head. Do we need health or wisdom or guidance or strength or hope or do we petition the Lord on behalf of our children, our friends, or our neighbors? Whatever it is we need, no matter what words we use, it is mercy, the pure, shining mercy of God that we seek.
I take great encouragement from something Ron Dunn wrote about what he learned at the end of a very bad day. When he got up, he didn’t spend time praying. As the day wore on, he was churlish in the way he treated people. When the day finally ended, he knelt to pray and began by saying, “Lord, I’ve made a mess of my life today and I confess I’m not worthy to come into your presence.” At that point he felt the Lord interrupt his prayer. “Ron, do you think having a quiet time this morning would have made you worthy to talk to me? Do you think doing good and treating people right would have somehow made you qualified to come into my presence? If that’s what you think, you don’t know yourself, you don’t know me, and you don’t understand my grace.” I can relate to that story because most of the time that’s exactly how I think. It’s so easy for all of us to believe that our good works somehow commend us to God, that if we’ll just “be good,” God is more likely to hear our prayers.
But to think like that is to deny the gospel itself. We are accepted by God only on the basis of what Jesus Christ has done. How dare we wave the tattered rags of a quiet time and think that somehow that makes a difference in heaven. I’m all for having a quiet time and all for treating people right and totally on the side of living for the Lord, but all of that cannot add even a tiny sliver to our acceptance before God. We depend totally on God’s mercy for everything we receive from the Lord.
For Sinners Only
A famous gospel song contains these lines:
Mercy there was great, and grace was free,
Pardon there was multiplied to me;
There my burdened soul found liberty
The end of the road for Jew and Gentile alike is the mercy of God, but that road to mercy leads through the experience of disobedience. Sometimes we say of certain criminals, “We should lock them up and throw away the key.” But that’s not what God says about you and men. He locks us up, and then he holds out the key of mercy, the only key that will unlock the prison door and set us free.
All of us are sinners.
All of us are locked in the prison of sin.
God has the only key that will set us free.
He offers to open the door to anyone who cries out for his mercy.
God has a mercy agenda even in his severe judgments. He looks at things differently than we do. We see friends who today are far from the Lord, we have loved ones who are hardened against the Lord, and we say, “There is no hope for them.” Or we see certain evil people committing acts of unspeakable cruelty, and if we were God, we would send them to hell in a speed boat. But God isn’t like us, and we’re not like him. Here is his message to a world in rebellion against him:
Let the wicked forsake his way and the evil man his thoughts. Let him turn to the LORD, and he will have mercy on him, and to our God, for he will freely pardon (Isaiah 55:7).
Don’t ever think that there are sinners so bad that God’s mercy can’t reach them. God’s mercy is always at work, even when we can’t see any sign of it. God doesn’t know any hopeless cases.
Finally, this must become very personal. Do you understand how rebellious your own heart is? Until you see that you are a wretched sinner, you have no chance to receive mercy. As long as you say, “I can handle my own affairs. I don’t need God,” you have cut yourself off from his mercy. Do you want to go to heaven? You’ve got to get there by the mercy of God or you won’t get there at all. Salvation begins when a person understands that he cannot save himself. Jesus died for sinners and for no one else. The door to heaven has a sign over the top, and the sign says FOR SINNERS ONLY. If you qualify, come on in. When you say, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner,” the gates of heaven are opened to you, and the mercy you seek flows into your life. Amen.