For His name’s sake

October 28, 2007 at 12:56 am 6 comments

10/29/07 – Post edited for clarity.

Both DocLucio and Stephen challenged the argument of my last post (Just to forgive), which was that God’s mercy is the result of his justice.

DocLucio pointed out (correctly) that the single text I used for illustration—1 John 1:9—was not by itself persuasive. Stephen stated (again, correctly) that 1 John 1:9 may simply be stating that because we confess our sins, it is just that God forgive us.

So I want to elaborate a little more on my contention that mercy is an extension (or even a requirement) of justice rather than a contradiction to justice. To do so, I’ll analyze two case studies:

1) Moses’ petition to God on behalf of Israel in Exodus 32
2) David’s pleas to God for mercy throughout the book of Psalms

As I’ll explain below, all the passages in question involve the argument that God should forgive his people for the sake of His own reputation. Each passage implies that God’s name (his righteousness? his justice?) will be tarnished if He does not grant mercy, and each passage consequently suggests that God’s mercy flows from and demonstrates His righteousness.

Now for the nitty gritty:

Moses’ petition to God on behalf of Israel (Exodus 32)

Exodus 32 records the story of Israel and the golden calf: Moses has been gone for too long up on Mt. Sinai talking to God, so the Israelites decide to create for themselves a new god, a golden calf.

Up on the mountain, God informs Moses of the proceedings below. “Let me alone,” He says, “that my anger may burn against them and that I may destroy them.” It’s as if Moses is somehow obstructing God’s ability to exercise His omnipotent power.

But Moses does not let God alone; instead, he pleads on behalf of Israel. Note the nature of the appeal:

“Oh Lord, why does Your anger burn against Your people whom You have brought out from the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand? Why should the Egyptians speak, saying ‘With evil intent He brought them out to kill them in the mountains and to destroy them from the face of the earth’?

“Turn from Your burning anger and change your mind about doing harm to Your people. Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, Your servants to whom You swore by Yourself, and said to them, ‘I will multiply your descendants as the stars of the heavens, and all this land of which I have spoken I will give to your descendants, and they shall inherit it forever.’

“So the Lord changed His mind about the harm which He said He would do to His people.”1

The line I want to focus on is the line involving Moses’ concern for God’s fame: “Why should the Egyptians speak, saying, ‘With evil intent He brought them out…?’”

Moses perceives that God’s reputation is at issue in this matter; he perceives that God’s actions with Israel, should He choose to annihilate His chosen nation, would raise questions about His righteousness and His justice.

God has begun a work with His people, and Moses feels God needs to stick it out with His people for the sake of His own name. Thus, the implication of Moses’ argument is that God should extend mercy as a means of demonstrating His own righteousness and His own justice.

David’s pleas to God for mercy throughout the book of Psalms

I recently read through the book of Psalms, focusing particularly on the themes of justice and mercy as they appear throughout the text. One point that stood out to me was David’s frequent requests for mercy toward his sin on the basis of an appeal to God’s reputation. Repeatedly he requests grace “for the sake of Your name.”

Psalm 25:7, 11 is a good example:

Do not remember the sins of my youth or my transgressions; according to Your lovingkindness remember me, for Your goodness’ sake, O Lord. […] For Your name’s sake, O Lord, pardon my iniquity, for it is great.

Likewise, Psalm 79:8-10:

Do not remember the iniquities of our forefathers against us; let Your compassion come quickly to meet us, for we are brought very low. Help us, O God of our salvation, for the glory of Your name; and deliver us and forgive our sins for Your name’s sake. Why should the nations say, “Where is their God?” Let there be known among the nations in our sight, Vengeance for the blood of Your servants which has been said.

And again, Psalm 115:1-2:

We have sinned like our fathers, we have committed iniquity, we have behaved wickedly….Nevertheless He saved them for the sake of His name, that He might make His power known [cf. Ps. 51:14; 74:22-23; 98:2; 109:21; 115:1-2; 143:1-3, 11].

In each of these cases, the Psalmist asks that God be merciful toward human sin so that His own name might not be tarnished. The Psalmist perceives, as did Moses, that God’s character is at issue; he also perceives that God is shown righteous, just, and worthy by the fact that He grants mercy.2

Mercy, for God’s own sake

Allow me to get radical for a moment:

It would be wrong to go so far as to say God needs to forgive us, or that we in any sense deserve forgiveness. He could simply annihilate us all, in which case there would be no one around to question his righteousness.

However, based on the above passages, there may be a sense in which it is important for God’s own sake that He extend mercy to His creatures. He is certainly not obligated to forgive, yet His His righteousness and justice are at stake in the matter. If He is truly just and truly righteous, it’s not consistent with His character for Him to simply destroy His creatures.

How, then, does a just God act? He extends mercy (at least specific instances). In providing a means of salvation and opening a window of forgiveness, He is proving His righteousness and evidencing His justice.

Hence, my original contention: Far from being contradictory to His justice, God’s mercy flows from His justice, and is in fact evidence of His justice.

1 I took the liberty of adding paragraph breaks.

2 I should acknowledge that one of the major themes of the Psalms is that God should reward people according to their deeds. According to the Psalmist, those who put their trust in God should be granted mercy, and those who spurn God should be destroyed. So the book definitely reflects the idea that justice means rewarding people in accordance with their works, and I don’t mean to minimize that (legitimate) aspect of justice. Still, Psalms includes appeals for mercy, such as those I have analyzed, on the basis of God’s reputation. Apparently the Psalmist sees more than one aspect of justice: Sometimes it involves rewarding people according to their deeds; sometimes it means granting mercy.


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Just to forgive Suffering as redemptive

6 Comments Add your own

  • 1. doclucio  |  October 28, 2007 at 11:47 am

    There’s some good evidence. At this point I’m content only to say that I feel a vital component is missing. Namely, God is obliged to forgive because He has described Himself as Love (and, truthfully, that’s not a label it’s who He is). Because He has declared Himself compassionate, He’s obliged to keep His word. This is why, I believe, we can come boldly to the throne of grace.

    But it gets even more complicated. Justice for the Christian IS mercy based largely on perspective. Compared to the law of sin, we have mercy. But in Christ we are under the Law to Love we live in the justice/righteousness of God imperceptibly. So, as you say, His justice is His mercy. But perhaps that statement involves blending the two realities as I see it.

    Good work.

  • 2. doclucio  |  October 28, 2007 at 11:49 am

    P.S., in other words, mercy doesn’t exist without sin. On a superficial level, neither does justice and righteousness (both imply an alternate course). But that’s largely the difficulty of language as I believe the concept of righteousness (but not mercy) will carry with us into eternity.

  • 3. Jamie  |  October 29, 2007 at 12:15 pm

    DocLucio: God is obliged to forgive because He has described Himself as Love (and, truthfully, that’s not a label it’s who He is).

    Agreed, and I think that’s an important clarification. It’s not that God is required, per se, to forgive, as if there is someone else holding Him accountable. No, not at all. It’s merely that He is love, He is just, He is righteous, and loving/righteous/just beings act mercifully (in appropriate circumstances).

  • 4. Stephen  |  October 31, 2007 at 3:55 pm

    Good work!

    I’m still a little hesitant to reduce the equation to the two variables you’ve identified here (justice and mercy). The third (hidden or implicit) variable in these scriptures is arguably a covenant relationship with God.

    E.P. Sanders (Paul and Palestinian Judaism) has argued that the covenant relationship is implicit in all the OT texts. (OK, that’s a paraphrase. I’m not sure he says that in so many words.)

    We misunderstand certain texts when we forget this: i.e., those texts that seem to say people earn certain benefits from God because of their good deeds. Sanders argues that the equation always involves another variable.

    (1) We enter a covenant relationship with God by grace (God takes the initiative to bring this about).
    (2) We perform certain deeds in order to remain in good standing as a covenant member.
    (3) Because we are a covenant member in good standing, God blesses us.

    Nonetheless, I think you’re onto something here. You’re asking, what is the biblical definition of the word “justice”? And you’re suggesting that it doesn’t mean what we think it means, what “justice” means in our legal system.

    I think you’re absolutely right about that. Moreover, I can’t tell you exactly what the breadth of the biblical word “justice” is. I think it’s a topic that warrants further study. I’ll be interested to see what you come up with.

    This is exactly how I’ve come to accumulate such knowledge as I possess. Most of it has not come from formal education. It has come from pursuing a topic that captures my interest, finding good sources of information, and studying until I begin to grasp the topic. And then it’s on to the next thing.

    By the way, you remind me that I listened to an excellent sermon on this topic not long ago. I found it through Phil (Narrative and Ontology), who called it “the best sermon I’ve ever heard”. The sermon can be downloaded here: it’s called “Justice – break every yoke”. Highly recommended!

  • 5. Jamie  |  October 31, 2007 at 10:59 pm

    Stephen: I’m still a little hesitant to reduce the equation to the two variables you’ve identified here (justice and mercy).

    Yes, me too, especially since the word “justice” is not actually mentioned explicitly in any of the texts I quoted. I think the concept I’m trying to get at is biblical, but this is not an argument that lends itself to proof texts. (Which may be a good thing, because I don’t think proof-texting is good.)

    Anyway, I think you’re right about the importance of God’s covenant, and I suspect that’s exactly why God’s justice/righteousness compels Him to be merciful: He has made a covenant with the human race (both verbally, and simply by virtue of being our creator) and has obligated Himself to us through His own promises. This is why His justice compels Him to be merciful. We aren’t just any old race; we are His people, for whom He is responsible.

  • 6. James Pate  |  November 2, 2007 at 12:25 pm

    It’s a Tim Keller sermon, so you’re in for a treat.


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profile.jpgI am working on my M.A. in Religion at Andrews University in Berrien Springs, Michigan. Besides having a big interest in theology, history, ethics, and the deep stuff of life, I am also very fond of Mediterranean food, snow, and the color red.

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