“O Lord, according to all your righteous acts, let your anger and your wrath turn away from your city Jerusalem…” – Daniel 9:16
In light of God’s justice and righteousness in the Old Testament, how he poured out his wrath on the nations surrounding Israel and even on Israel herself, this verse is such a radical, seemingly contradictory statement. If you simply do a surface-level study of what justice and righteousness actually means in theological terms, and particularly what it means for us sinners, it is goosebump-frightening to consider its reality. It should make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up. Seriously.
Think back to, or look up, Isaiah 6, Ezekiel 1 and John’s response in Revelation to see what the reaction to God’s justice and holiness looks like. Or read this Jonathan Edwards sermon. It was one of His most famous. In it, Edwards expounds upon the awful wrath and fury of God we all deserve for our sin and how Christ is the only protector and shield from its horrors.
God is infinitely righteous, holy and perfect and can let no sin go unpunished. None. But, as is said in this verse in Daniel, according to your righteous acts, turn away your wrath? Shouldn’t it be, “According to Your righteous acts let your wrath fall? For you let no sin go unpunished?” This is what Jonah seemed to think should have happened to Nineveh. Yet God spared them in great mercy. But how is it this passage in Daniel can ask of God to “be merciful in light of your righteousness”? This seems like asking God the impossible, and asking Him in light of this very justice and righteousness that should be our eternal dismay!
In Romans 3:21-26, Paul answers this conundrum and it is clear. How can God be just (meeting out all wrath due to our sin) and yet be merciful to His chosen, elect people? Paul’s answer is radically groundbreaking.
But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it— the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, 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. 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 last few verses are what I want to focus on. God put Christ forward as a propitiation, a wrath-bearer, to be received by faith. Believe in Jesus Christ alone to take your sin and its fruit in Himself (instead of you on Judgment Day), and to give you His perfect record of obedience in exchange. There we have it, a summed up Gospel statement.
Now here is the reason God did this: it was in order to 1) remain just, and 2) that in pardoning many, He would be the justifier of the ungodly through faith. Christ died first and foremost to show that though God is merciful in passing over former sins, all the punishment for sin will be met out in its fullness, either in the unrepentant sinner, or within Christ’s once-for-all-time sacrificial work upon the cross.
Before Christ came, God had relented His anger many times, against Israel and without, passing over their sins without a punishment. Yes, many times His wrath burned and took out entire cities, and yet many other times, God spared cities (like Nineveh). How in the world can He be just if He doesn’t meet out full judgment on those who have earned and deserved His wrath? That’s the very thing that Jonah desired to have happen to Nineveh. He wanted to see divine justice rain down (much because of his own nationalistic pride and unmerciful heart toward Nineveh). So how can God be merciful (to Nineveh for example) and yet still retain the glory and honor of His name that had been trodden under foot by the nations?
Only through the incarnation of Christ, living as we live, yet without sin, fulfilling the Law of God perfectly from our side, in our place, dying the hell-bound sinners death we deserved upon the cross, in our place, and rising from the grave, was this at all possible. For God to remain just in justifying sinners, He took His own wrath in Himself in the Person of Christ. God the Son took God the Father’s punishment willingly so that He could still be just and righteous and yet we could still be set free from the bondage of sin and enjoy the glory of God forever!
This is one of the greatest things that happened at the cross. Jesus is the Great justice and mercy conundrum harmonizer. In Him all God’s justice was satisfied toward those who would believe in Him through faith and then they go free from eternal punishment. It makes the picture of God being your shield and fortress spoken in the Psalms a lot clearer now huh? Christ is the shield and the fortress.
This still amazes me to this day, as I pray it always does and never gets old. God Justified me at the cross, it is a done deal. How can we not live to His glory after having not only seen but experienced this kind of love? It is astonishing. This is and should be the core motivation of our lives in every good work we do, whether Scripture reading, feeding the poor in order to share the Gospel, eating, drinking, leading a Bible study, hanging out, thinking, voting, and relaxing. Do all these things in light of God’s mercy to us in Christ and do all of them to His glory, giving Him thanks and honor for sustaining any of it by the power of His Word in fathomless grace.
All of that to say that Jesus is the fulfillment and harmonizer of the ideas within Daniel 9:16. In Christ’s wrath-bearing sacrifice, as a lamb slaughtered upon the cross, risen from the grave, God remains just and perfectly righteous while justifying sinners. Unbelievable! This is pure Gospel, pure good news for those who are whipped up and downtrodden, in bondage to sin and standing under the wrath of God at this very moment. Flee to Christ for refuge from the wrath to come but also refuge and true satisfaction in the here and now, in order that you may live a life that is honoring and pleasing to Him. He is the Great depression-healer, the Great loneliness-filler, the Great wrath-bearer, the Great Law-fulfiller, the Great filth-cleanser, by His blood. He is our everything for He is the Master of the universe, intricately and intimately controlling all the various arrangements of all that is, including our very lives.
The roots of this grace were laid long ago before Christ came in the flesh, long before Daniel, long before Israel came to be, long before Abraham, before Noah, before Adam even. The roots of God’s grace go into eternity, into the very counsel of the Trinity. The justice, wrath, righteousness, grace, mercy, and love of God are the essence of His being and are brought into clear focus upon the cross of Jesus.
At the cross we see the absolute seriousness of our sin, that the Son of God had to take it in Himself in such an awful display of grotesqueness so that we might be saved. And here we see how great love this is that would go to such extremes, not merely to show us how much He loved us (as an example), but to actually step in the way of God’s wrath for any who would believe in Him, in order that we may be rescued from it.
Seemingly contradictory ideas, justice and mercy, are brought into complete harmony in the Person and Work of Jesus Christ. How marvelous and how wonderful! I pray all who read this take the time to meditate upon this wonderful Gospel God has granted to us in the Person of Christ who was made a person like any one of us. That little baby that was born, fully God and fully man, came with a purpose, a purpose He Himself makes clear in Mark 10:45: “The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” This is the core reason for Christmas, the clear and loud proclamation of the Gospel. May we use this time to herald the good news of Christ, that salvation has come!