Mercy Triumphs Through Judgment
“Say therefore to the people of Israel, ‘I am the LORD , and I will bring you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians, and I will deliver you from slavery to them, and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with great acts of judgment’” (Ex. 6:6). Jonathan Edwards, in his six-part sermon series “The Wisdom of God Displayed in the Way of Salvation,” made the following astonishing statement:
The justice of God that required man’s damnation, and seemed inconsistent with his salvation, now as much requires the salvation of those that believe in Christ, as ever before it required their damnation. Salvation is an absolute debt to the believer from God, so that he may in justice demand it, on account of what his surety has done. For Christ has satisfied justice fully for his sin … . The believer may demand eternal life, because it has been merited by Christ… . That justice that seemed to require man’s destruction, now requires his salvation.
It is an astonishing statement because the Scriptures expressly teach that God owes us nothing but judgment because of our sin. Many have embraced the idea that God must be merciful to men. Accordingly, He is merciful, so He does not need to be just; or, because He is merciful, He can simply set aside His righteous judgments. After all, James 2:13 says, “mercy triumphs over judgment.” Mercy does triumph over judgment, but not by simply setting it aside; rather, mercy triumphs over judgment because judgment is fully executed and justice finally satisfied at the cross. The justice and mercy of God met together at Calvary (Ps. 85:10–11), securing God’s rich and everlasting mercy for hell-deserving sinners who believe on the Son of God. Mercy triumphs over judgment because mercy comes through judgment.
One of the clearest examples of this principle is the account of Israel’s redemption from Egypt. The mercy of God was displayed, in all its symbolic fullness, in Israel’s deliverance from the bondage of Egypt. The servile bondage that Israel endured under the hand of Pharaoh was a type of the bondage that all men, by nature, experience at the hand of Satan. The judgment the Lord sent on Egypt represented the judgment with which Christ would deal with sin and Satan. Nevertheless, Israel still had to undergo judgment in order to secure and receive the mercy of God. This judgment ultimately was realized in the death of the Passover lamb.
It is remarkable that the first nine plagues did not fall on Israel. God was making a distinction between Israel and Egypt. At first glance, the reader might be tempted to conclude that Israel did not deserve judgment. But in the tenth (and most severe) plague — the death of the firstborn — this distinction was removed. God was revealing that Israel deserved the same judgment as Egypt.
Mercy is not getting what you deserve. Therefore, in His mercy God made a provision for Israel. If an Israelite would, in faith, kill spotless lambs and put their blood on the doorposts of their homes (in accord with God’s instructions), the Lord would pass over each and every home on which He saw the blood. If an Israelite did not put the blood on the doorposts of his house, the Lord would enter that home and execute judgment on the firstborn — both man and beast. The provision was clear: judgment would fall on either the substitute lamb or on the firstborn.
Judgment fell on God’s firstborn Son at Calvary. In the death of Jesus, the believer underwent the judgment of God. By union with Him, we died when He died (Col. 3:3). In His resurrection, we rose when He rose (v. 1). When He hung on the cross, the justice of God did not pass over Jesus. He was the spotless Lamb who “bore our sins in his body on the tree” (1 Peter 2:24). He was the perfect substitute. The judgment of God fell on Him for the sins of His people. Just as the judgment that God sent on Egypt was the means of Israel’s salvation, the judgment that Christ endured at Calvary was the means of the salvation of sinners.
In His infinite wisdom, the Lord has devised a plan to uphold His justice and show His mercy. In the death of Christ, God is “just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus” (Rom. 3:26). Men have either been judged at Calvary or they will be judged for all eternity. The sacrifice of Christ was so perfect that, just as it would have been unjust for God to kill the firstborn of Israel if the blood were seen on the doorposts, it would be unjust for Him to cast away those for whom Christ died. The apostle John taught as much when he wrote, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). So, with Edwards, we can safely say, “the believer may demand eternal life, because it has been merited by Christ … that justice that seemed to require man’s destruction, now requires his salvation.”