Ligon Duncan on the Non-Negotiables of the Gospel

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  • Thursday, April 19, 2007

    The Grand Riddle

    in wrath remember mercy. Habakkuk 3:2
    To ask a holy and just God to show mercy to sinners who deserve punishment is to ask God to be less than God. How could Habakkuk do this? How can mercy and wrath be reconciled. This is the core and mystery of the Gospel, this is the Grand Riddle of scripture.

    We've just come out of the Good Friday/Resurection Day season and every year these dates seem to activate the usual cast of skeptics: the sensationalists in media, the sad and desperate of atheism and the sophists of liberal theology.

    This year a movie hit the theaters about a black Jesus who was crucified because he was black and the Jews were white racists:

    "Although this ethnic discrimination angle might be factually inaccurate, since if Jesus was a black Jew, his accusers must’ve mostly been black Jews, too, the best thing about Color of the Cross is that it finally furnishes us with a reason for the Crucifixion." (Review from

    Frustrated and deluded atheist Richard Dawkins continues to display the epistemological receptive bias that Paul warns about in Romans 1:21 "For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened." Dawkins writes:
    "Submitting to such a monstrous scheme is to condone its immorality, to sacrifice our morals too, along with our dignity. We are granted knowledge between good and evil... and I know an evil scheme when I see one! If I am a selfish person, I will do anything to attain heaven... but if I am a moral person, I cannot accept God's scheme. I do not believe that this is the way it is... either God is immoral, or the Crucifixion was not part of God's plan, or of course the more sensible alternative is that there is no God at all." (The God Delusion" by Prof. Richard Dawkins, p253)

    Then there are those who profess to be 'in the fold' - teachers who go about "having the appearance of godliness, but denying its power." (2 Tim. 3:5) Some of these false teachers proclaim that the crucifixion was merely Christ, our moral exemplar, giving us the ultimate example of sacrifice for our fellow man. Others of these liberals teach that Jesus never really died; that Jesus survived the crucifixion and the later Gospels edited the story to make it look as if Jesus died on the cross.

    I have given these people more time and more acknowledgment than they deserve but I list these delusions as a small example of a very large body of information being promulgated against the crucifixion of Christ.

    The Grand Riddle
    The prophet Habakkuk, in the midst of a vision of impending doom and wrath, offers up a prayer of intercession to the Lord. It begins:

    O Lord, I have heard the report of you,
    and your work, O Lord, do I fear.
    In the midst of the years revive it;
    in the midst of the years make it known;
    in wrath remember mercy. Habakkuk 3:2

    The prayer continues but my mind was arrested by that last simple request, just four words in english - in wrath remember mercy. If this were a supplication made before a great king then this request would make sense. "Please great King, you know what it's like to make a mistake. Please overlook the wrong doing of these people enough to spare them what they in fact deserve." We might make such an appeal to an earthly King or president.

    This request is not made to an earthly king, however, but to the Holy and Righteous Sovereign of the Universe whose perfections and power are without boundary. God's righteousness cannot tolerate any sin. God's justice must dispense retribution for every sin. Can we ask God to overlook that which dishonors his very name? Of course not!

    So how can Habakkuk, a mere creature, ask the Holy Sovereign to withhold the punishment that the people had earned. Remember, grace is giving to someone a gift which HAS NOT been earned; mercy is withholding the punishment which someone HAS earned. Habakkuk has asked that God be less than just; to violate his holiness. What is more puzzling is that Habakkuk is praying in and under the supervision of the Holy Spirit. How can wrath and mercy be brought together? This is the grand riddle.

    This is not the first time we see the grand riddle appear in scripture. It is expanded but not explained in Exodus 34:6-7.

    Ex. 34:6 The Lord passed before him and proclaimed, “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, 7 keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children's children, to the third and the fourth generation.”

    Just prior to this amazing proclamation Moses had asked God to show him His glory. (Ex. 33:18) What a bold prayer, what a dangerous prayer. God agreed to show Moses a portion of his glory. Glory is the 'weightiness' of God, the embodiment of his perfections and power in such an awesome display, that the full weight of the truth and expression of these attributes would quickly overrun and overload our perception. We would be undone, we would be ruined. But God is merciful in His revelation of himself and he has created us with the ability to understand 'packets' of his Glory.

    In scripture, God's Glory is always composed of a visible element and a proclamation. We see these two components in Luke 2:8-14, the announcement of Christ's birth. The visible element shown all around and the proclamation of the birth of the Christ was heard.

    In the Exodus passage, there was again the great brilliance of the visible Glory and then the proclamation. Did you see the the great riddle within that proclamation? It's an impossible situation that God expresses. God proclaims to Moses that he punishes EVERY sin. Not only does he tell Moses that no infraction goes unnoticed and unpunished, but that the sinner will receive a penalty so severe that the sinner's great-great-grandchildren will feel it. And yet, in this same sobering proclamation God says that he forgives iniquity, keeps a steadfast love and is faithful to the faithless. How can this be? Could Moses possibly have understood this proclamation or was the truth of this as numbing to his mind as the brilliant glow was as blinding to his eyes?

    Justice Deferred
    The riddle stood for centuries, wrath and mercy, two conflicting attributes standing in irreconcilable contrast to one another and begging the skeptic, and the Accuser, to ask: Is God really just? Many when asked why Jesus died on the cross will answer, "He did it out of love for his people" and these folks are not wrong, but they are only partly right. Jesus died on the cross to demonstrate the righteousness and justice of God the Father.

    Romans 3:21 But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it— 22 the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, 25 whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God's righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. 26 It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.

    The grand riddle, 'in wrath remember mercy' is answered only in the cross of Christ. The crucifixion was not the unfortunate end of a good but misunderstood teacher. The crucifixion is the only solution to the riddle of God's Glory. The cross is the revelation of the great mystery of the Gospel. In the Cross we witness the mercy of God in it's utter fullness "abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin". Simultaneously we witness, in the cross, the fullness of God's wrath poured out until the divine cup is empty, the long deferred anger of God exhausted in one place on one person, the justice of God fully satisfied at last.

    Christ in his righteous keeping of the law proved himself the only worthy substitute for our sin filled race. In his divinity, only Christ, could withstand the wrath of God earned by every sin and sinner since Adam. The cross and the doctrine of penal substitution is far from an embarrassment to Christians; it is the core of the good news of the Gospel. Without the cross the grand riddle of scripture would remain unsolvable for in the cross we witness the fullest revelation of all of God's perfections and powers. In the cross alone, I will boast.

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