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God's Mercy and God's Wrath Meet at the Cross

Today I want to wrap up this short series that I’ve titled “The Holiness of God and the Existence of Hell.” It looks at what happens when the holy God comes into contact with sin. So far we’ve seen that God may react to sin with just wrath and that he may react with patient mercy. Now I want to look to the place where God’s wrath and mercy meet—the cross of Christ.

The cross of Jesus Christ is all about God’s holiness. That may seem strange, that a place of blood and suffering and torment would be all about holiness. But the cross answers this question: How can a holy God be reconciled to unholy people? That question demands this one: How can the relationship between a holy God and an unholy people be restored without some gross act of injustice?

At the cross we see just how much God values his holiness. We see that God will not violate his own holiness even in order to save the ones he loves. Here at the cross we see wrath and mercy meet. We see both of them in their glorious fullness—the ultimate display of God’s wrath and the ultimate display of God’s mercy.

When we look to the cross we see Jesus Christ serving the just sentence of a sinner. There on the cross Christ experiences physical death, so his heart stops beating and his body begins to decay. He also faces spiritual death, spiritual destruction. He is punished by facing the fury of the wrath of God. He is punished consciously for sin done in conscious rebellion against God. He faces an eternal measure of wrath for sins against an eternal being. There on the cross, he faces the justice and the torment of hell.

So where is the mercy of the cross? All we see here is Christ experiencing all wrath and no mercy. How can I say that wrath and mercy meet here? 

Let me explain. Christ has never sinned, so, why would a sinless man be suffering God’s wrath? Because he walked into that courtroom, he stood between the judge and the guilty person, and said, “I will serve his sentence.” He took other people’s sin upon himself. He took upon himself sin to such an extent that he became sin. He became vile and detestable in God’s eyes—the most vile and detestable thing that could ever exist—and God poured out the full measure of his wrath upon him. He poured out his wrath upon Christ until that wrath was absorbed and exhausted, until every bit of justice was satisfied. 

Christ served the complete sentence of just wrath that I deserved. This is the mercy of the cross, the sinless one serving the sentence of the sinner. Now we see that God has a purpose in his mercy; there is a purpose in his patience. 2 Peter 3:9-10 says it so well: “The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.” God does not wish that any should perish, so he gives time to repent.

And now we see why God has been patient in mercy. God has been patient so that Christ’s work could be accomplished and so we could reach out by faith and become recipients of that work and there receive full forgiveness and full exoneration.

Christ took my sentence upon himself so that I can experience more than patient but temporary mercy. We have seen that mercy is expressed in patience—in wrath delayed—but now we see that mercy may also be expressed in grace, in wrath substituted, wrath transferred to someone else.

No wonder, then, that for all of eternity our minds, our hearts, will be fixated on this Savior, Jesus Christ. In Revelation 15:3-4, we have a glimpse of the great day to come, where a great throng sings before the Lord, rejoicing in the God who is merciful and the God who is just.

Great and amazing are your deeds,
O Lord God the Almighty!
Just and true are your ways,
O King of the nations!
Who will not fear, O Lord,
and glorify your name?
For you alone are holy.
All nations will come and worship you,
for your righteous acts have been revealed.

God’s deeds are great and amazing. God is just and true and God’s righteous acts culminate in the cross where Christ satisfies the demands of God’s justice. This is the wonder of the cross, that here we see the fullest measure of wrath and the fullest measure of mercy at the same time in the same place and all because of the same Savior. At the cross, we see wrath and mercy meet.

A chapter later in Revelation we see one of the angels praising God and again extolling God’s justice.

Just are you, O Holy One, who is and who was
for you brought these judgments.
For they have shed the blood of the saints and prophets,
and you have given them blood to drink.
It is what they deserve.
And I heard the altar saying,
Yes, Lord God the Almighty, 
true and just are your judgments.”

God is worthy of praise for his patient mercy. God is worthy of praise for his just wrath.

Christian, God’s history with you is a history of mercy and patience and love. Do you see God’s patience with you? You may think back to the days before you were saved by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone, and remember sins you committed, sins that justly put you under the wrath of God, sins that shame you now, and you can see that he was patient, not wishing that you should perish, but waiting for you to repent. He did not owe you this mercy of patience, yet he extended it to you, and you did repent, and you did receive his forgiveness for that sin, and the punishment of that sin was fully paid by Jesus Christ. Praise God for this patient mercy!

The unbeliever too, has experienced God’s patient mercy. He is experiencing it right now. How do I know? Because he is still alive; because God has not yet acted in final judgment toward him. What will happen when God’s mercy comes to an end and all that is left is judgment and wrath? Here is our call to evangelism, to take the good news of the gospel of grace to people who day after day continue to presume upon God’s mercy. God does not wish for any to perish, to face his wrathful justice.

We began this series by asking, “Does hell exist? Is it a place of eternal, conscious torment?” To ask whether hell exists is to ask if God is truly holy, if he will truly be holy in the face of sin. We find that God will be holy, which means he will be just, which means he will punish sin, which means there is a hell and it is a place of his wrath. It must be.

In the narratives of the Old Testament we see display after display of God’s patient mercy and occasional displays of his just wrath. But at the cross we each in its fullness. We see heaven and hell—the heaven of mercy and the hell of wrath, the heaven of righteousness, the hell of unrighteousness, the heaven of Christ’s gracious substitution, the hell of facing justice without an advocate, without a substitute. 

If there is no hell, there is no need for a cross. The cross shows us the depth of our sin and the height of God’s holiness, the purity of God’s wrath and the greatness of God’s mercy. The cross assures us that hell exists. The cross demands that we look to the one hanging there and put all our faith, all our hope, all our trust in him.