Vengeance Is Forbidden. Mercy Is Commanded:
In my previous article, we discovered that Jesus commissioned His followers with a different mission from that which God occasionally ordered the Israelites to implement during Old Testament times. These two missions do not simply appear to be at odds with each other. They are incompatible. And not just that; they’re intentionally meant to be different.
To reach this conclusion we observed:
- That Jesus ordered His followers to always and only ever extend mercy to all people, including enemies. Jesus went so far as to forbid His followers from imposing judgment or executing vengeance on anyone.
- That in the Old Testament, God is sometimes recorded as commanding the Israelites to do the exact opposite. Israel is instructed by God to execute judgment, inflict vengeance, and show no mercy.
These are undoubtedly conflicting missions: showing no mercy versus only showing mercy, executing God’s vengeance versus never being allowed to avenge. To deny their incompatibility is folly. God wants for us to recognize that these missions are in fact different, because such an acknowledgment is necessary before one can discover why they are different. And the answer to this Why? question may just turn out to be the best news you’ve ever heard!
So let’s come at this Why? question from a few different angles. Why is there a sudden shift in missions? Was there some event or act that enabled such a shift? Could there be a common thread that unites these two missions and explains why they are different? Since God didn’t simply wake up one morning and decide to have a change of heart, how are these two missions both connected to God’s one, overarching plan? Or to say it a different way, how could Jesus distance Himself from a mission of executing judgment yet still be true to the inherit justice in the character of God?
The Place Where Justice And Mercy Join Hands:
The answer to these questions is surprisingly straightforward. It is found at the very center of the Gospel message we Christians proclaim…namely, the cross of Christ. However, too often as Christians, when we think about Jesus’ saving work on the cross, we brush past the gravity of our sin and the ramifications of God being just and holy in order to rush to the mercy of the cross. When we do this, we fail to recognize the problem that the cross solves. If we overlook the problem, we will not see how the cross reconciles these different sets of teaching on violence and treatment of enemies.
Let us first focus on the gravity of our sin. In Romans, Paul informs us that we “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23). He goes on to teach us two ramifications of our sin. First of all, our sin has separated us from God and made us His enemies. “You were God’s enemies, separated from Him by your evil thoughts and actions” (Col. 1:21). We have deemed God our enemy; thankfully He does reciprocate such enmity back at us. Secondly, sin strips us of life. It results in death. That is its price. That is what it costs us. “For the payment due for sin is death” (Rom. 6:23).
Because God is just, He cannot simply brush sin aside as no big deal. If a judge repeatedly pardoned every criminal proven guilty, the public would soon be in an uproar over such a blatant breach of justice. Similarly, “if evil did not provoke God to anger He would forfeit our respect.” But thankfully, God is just. And because of this, He is always repulsed by evil and vigorously opposed to it.
We see this to be true throughout the Old Testament. Because God is just and a price must be paid for sin, God sometimes used the Israelites to execute His vengeance upon the surrounding sinful nations.
Thankfully this isn’t the full picture depicted in the Old Testament. The Hebrew Scriptures also reveal that God longs to bestow mercy on us all. Even though the just price for sin is death, God does not delight in it. “For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone,” declared the Lord through Ezekiel.
This leads us to the predicament that our sin caused for God, who is just yet also full of love and mercy. The problem is simply this: how can God remain just while justifying the unjust? Or as John Stott words the problem, “How is it possible for the righteous God to declare the unrighteous to be righteous without either compromising His righteousness or condoning our unrighteousness?”
The answer to this problem is the cross. For through the crucifixion of Jesus, God revealed a way to be both just and the justifier of the ungodly. He found a way to satisfy both His need for justice and His longing to extend mercy. William Farley states it well in his book Outrageous Mercy: “The cross synthesizes the wrath of God and the love of God. It satisfies both without compromising either. At the cross, the mercy of God and the justice of God become friends. It is God’s great harmonizer.” At the cross, and only at the cross, do we see justice and mercy join hands. Or as Philip Yancey words it, “Calvary broke up the logjam between justice and forgiveness.” Through the cross, God bestowed mercy on us by inflicting the judgment we deserve upon His Son.
Not only is the cross God’s solution to the problem of how a just God can justify the unjust, it is also the answer for how to reconcile the teachings on violence and treatment of enemies in the Old and New Testaments.
As we’ve seen, Jesus came on a mission of mercy rather than judgment because He knew He would take upon Himself God’s vengeance and judgment towards us, who all were at enmity with God. True, using violence to carry out vengeance on enemies may be what they justly deserve (as the Old Testament seems to reveal). However, with the crucifixion of Jesus, justice was satisfied so that we could be the objects of God’s mercy. And as the parable of the unmerciful servant so clearly portrays (Matthew 18:21-35), as recipients of mercy, to be just is not enough. We are to extend the same kind of mercy we’ve received to all people (including enemies) precisely because Jesus showed us mercy while we were still enemies of God.
The cross is the key we have been looking for in our effort to reconcile the seemingly contradictory teachings on violence between the Old and New Testaments. Because of the cross, Jesus now forbids judgment and in its place commands mercy! Because of the cross, Jesus prohibits vengeance and violent resistance and teaches us to instead love and pray for our enemies. The cross explains why the use of violence was sometimes permitted by God in the Old Testament yet is no longer permissible for Christ-followers. For the cross has absorbed the entirety of God’s wrath and judgment towards us by placing it all upon His Son.
This is the Gospel message—God offering mercy to His enemies. That is why extending mercy to enemies must also be central to what it means for us to follow Jesus. As Christians, we may preach the Good News of salvation through Jesus Christ to our enemies, but if we refuse to extend love and forgiveness and mercy to them, then our lives are drowning out our proclamation with some very bad news. If the gospel message we preach and demonstrate is not good news to all people, especially to enemies, then it is not the Good News of Jesus Christ.
Making Peace Is The Gospel:
Let’s take this one step further. Peacemaking is at the very core of the Good News. “Even when we were God’s enemies, he made peace with us, because His Son died for us” (Rom. 5:10a). That is why peacemaking must also be a central component of what it means to follow Jesus. As Dom Jose Maria Pires, a Brazilian archbishop, put it, “What North Americans call nonviolence is simply living out the teachings of the Gospel.” Tom Yoder Neufeld goes so far as to say, “For the sons and daughters of God, peacemaking is at the end of the day not a matter of tradition, denomination, or political ideology. It is a matter of gospel, period.” Put bluntly, those people who seek to follow Jesus’ example of forsaking violence in order to extend love towards enemies should not be called pacifists; they are simply Christians.
We are called to be peacemakers because God is a peacemaker. This is why the only people Jesus referred to as “sons of God” were those engaged in peacemaking. John and Paul used the phrase “sons of God” or “children of God” to refer to anyone who believed in Jesus. However, based on the recorded sayings of Jesus in the Gospels, Jesus exclusively reserved this title for those who made peace by loving their enemies:
- “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.” ~ Matthew 5:9
- “But I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven.” ~ Matthew 5:44-45a
- “But love your enemies, do good, and lend, hoping for nothing in return; and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High. For He is kind to the unthankful and evil.” ~ Luke 6:35
The reason Jesus solely used the title “sons of God” for those who love their enemies is because they are the ones who most fully resemble the forgiving Father. If you go about making peace by loving your enemies, then everyone will know you’re a child of God because you’ll be the “spittin’ image” of your Father! People will look at you and say, “Wow, you remind me of your Father. You look and act just like Him.”
Jesus Is Our Model & Our Motivator For Cultivating Peace:
Jesus and His cross give our peacemaking efforts a distinct flavor. Jesus’ life and teaching are our model for cultivating peace. Ours is a cross-centered approach to peacemaking. Ours is an approach rooted in being a people that extend mercy instead of judgment.
One final point must be made. Jesus’ voluntary crucifixion is not only the ultimate example of nonviolently loving one’s enemies and making peace, it is also the source from which we find the inspiration to do the same. We are to love our enemies as an act of gratitude to the One who loved us when we were still His enemies. As Philip Yancey stated so well in his book What’s So Amazing About Grace?, “If I had to summarize the primary New Testament motivation for “being good” in one word, I would choose gratitude.”
We will never last long in our efforts to be a people of mercy that love their enemies if our motivation for doing so is solely a desire to obey Jesus’ commands. This is a good desire, but it is not strong enough to sustain us long-term. Rather, our motivation for being Christian peacemakers ought to be the cross, or more specifically, the gratitude that will overflow from a life centered on the cross.
Through the cross, God has been graciously unfair to us. The joy that comes from receiving such a gift empowers us to be graciously unfair to others as well.
 Stott, John. The Cross of Christ, pg. 124.
 Ezekiel 18:32
 Stott, John. The Cross of Christ, pg. ??.
 Yancey, Philip. What’s So Amazing About Grace?, pg. 92.
 See Mt. 7:1 and Luke 3:36 for two examples.
 See Mt. 5:38-48 and Rm. 12:14-21 for two examples.
 Wink, Walter. Engaging the Powers, pg. 217.
 Yancey, Philip. What’s So Amazing About Grace?, pg. 190.