This post is written by Matt Stewart and is published as a companion to Unit 10, Session 4 of The Gospel Project for Adults Vol. 4 (Summer 2022): From Unity to Division.
Kids love to tattle on each other. Why? Because even children have a built-in-sense of right and wrong. They know when they’ve been wronged, or at least, they know when they feel wronged. Rather than trying to work things out with their sibling or friend, they find the nearest adults and let them know in no uncertain terms what the other child has done. Funny enough, when they themselves are being tattled on, they can’t stand being accused…after all, it was clearly the other kid’s fault!
We Are All Guilty of Sin
Whether child or adult, all human beings have God’s moral law written on their hearts (Romans 2:12-16). Thus, our consciences either accuse or excuse us. What we do when our consciences begin indicating something is going wrong, however, has a tremendous impact on how we relate to God and others. As Paul stated in Romans 1:18-32, those who are godless have denied the glory of the Creator because they’ve rejected Him in favor of the creation. Though God has clearly revealed Himself, they have exchanged His glory for the glory of created things…even man himself. However, it’s not just the godless who is in trouble—the god-follower is as well (Romans 2:1-5). In this context, the Jew may judge the Gentile for his immorality, but he himself is guilty of many of the same sins, even if not outwardly. As Jesus made clear, however, words and actions reveal the condition of the heart (Mark 7:17-23). It’s because the heart is corrupt that we sin, which means any attempt to appease God’s justice by adherence to His law is futile (Romans 3:19-20). Please don’t misunderstand: The law itself is good. It reveals God’s holiness and sets God’s people apart. But the law reveals our sinful condition, leaving us trapped in guilt for our lawlessness. Not only that, but our sin nature simply can’t stand being told what to do or submitting to the authority of a higher Being. Whether guilt-laden or hard-headed, then, every human being, Jew and Gentile, stands guilty before a holy God and deserves eternal punishment in hell (Revelation 20:11-15).
God is Just
But God…what a short and incredibly powerful phrase. Though He would be justified in condemning every human being for their treason, God provided a solution to our sin problem in the person of His Son, Jesus Christ. The Son of God stepped out of eternity and into time, was born of a woman, fulfilled the law, and suffered and died in the place of sinners so that every sinner who repents and believes in Him is “justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (Romans 3:24). You see, just as the High Priest would sprinkle the blood of the sacrifice over the covering to the ark of the covenant on the day of atonement, so Christ has been offered as a sacrifice for sins once and for all to atone for those who will turn to Him in faith. The Lord waited patiently for generations, choosing not to pour out His wrath on sinners, because He looked ahead to the sacrifice of His Son, “so that he would be just and justify the one who has faith in Jesus” (Romans 3:26). Thus, in the cross of Christ, God’s justice, toward sin and grace for the sinner, comes together in perfect harmony.
God Calls Us to Imitate His Justice
But the power of the gospel doesn’t end at conversion. Rather, God’s grace is actively at work in the hearts of His children, leading them to think, feel, and behave like their Lord. Just as a son reflects his father’s physical features, personality, and priorities, so God’s children are called to imitate Him. That’s why Amos prophesied against Israel—they looked forward to “the day of the LORD” because they believed they would be delivered from their enemies once and for all due to their status as God’s covenant people (Amos 5:18-27). But all the while, they denied God with their religious hypocrisy. Sure, they offered sacrifices and observed feasts, but they also committed idolatry, immorality, and perhaps most hypocritical of all, they took advantage of the poor and marginalized among their own people for personal gain. Just as Jesus told the religious leaders of His own day, they observed the minutia of the law but “neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy, and faithfulness” (Matthew 23:23). Liturgies and rituals mean nothing if they aren’t backed by a heart of worship, or as Yahweh stated to His wayward people, “But let justice flow like water, and righteousness, like an unfailing stream” (Amos 5:24). As those who have been declared righteous in God’s sight through faith in Jesus Christ, we must imitate our heavenly Father, who showed grace to the undeserving while maintaining His just standard. We should not have to choose between preaching a gospel of grace and seeking justice for the poor, vulnerable, and marginalized. To be clear, the church of Jesus Christ must be vigilant in her mission to make disciples of all nations, but she must do so, not to the neglect of the needs of her own people or those she is striving to reach with the good news.
As we go and make disciples of all nations, we must remember that the Lord requires us “to act justly, to love faithfulness, and to walk humbly with [our] God” (Micah 6:8). And as we do so, a watching world will both hear and see the heart of our just and gracious God.
Matt Stewart is the pastor of teaching and care at Christ Community Church in Huntersville, North Carolina, and a ThM candidate at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, where he also earned an MDiv. Matthew and his wife, Courtney, have six children.