We tend to have many complaints against God. The Israelites also had their complaints, often accusing God of injustice:
- “Yet the house of Israel says, 'The way of the Lord is not just.' O house of Israel, are my ways not just? Is it not your ways that are not just?” (Ezekiel 18:29; ESV)
What was the basis of Israel's complaint? They thought that God's ways were unfair. For example, God informed Israel:
- “When a righteous person turns away from his righteousness and does injustice, he shall die for it; for the injustice that he has done he shall die. Again, when a wicked person turns away from the wickedness he has committed and does what is just and right, he shall save his life. Because he considered and turned away from all the transgressions that he had committed, he shall surely live; he shall not die.” (Ezekiel 18:26-28)
This revelation is revolutionary. We tend to think that our good works will be weighed against our evil works. If the good outweighs the evil, we will be rewarded. If the evil outweighs the good, we will be punished. Consequently, if our good is greater than our evil - and 98% are convinced that their account is favorable and therefore deserve only the best from God - we reason that we are entitled to play fast-and-loose for a bit.
However, God had warned Israel that when they trust in their own righteous account and sin, they are lost. Similarly, when the evildoer turns to God from a lifetime of evil, he will live!
According to human thinking, this is unjust. However, this charge is based upon a faulty assumption - that we can earn good from God through our good deeds. Instead, throughout the Bible, God warns that we can never be good enough to ever claim anything from God. Paul dismissed this understanding of human merit before God:
- “Or who has given a gift to him that he might be repaid?” (Romans 11:35)
Of course, God would never be in the position of owing us anything. Instead, our entitlement presumptions had to be humbled:
- “Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God. For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.” (Romans 3:19-20)
No one was righteous through their performance. Israel had wrongly thought that the law was given as a means to earn righteousness and to personally attain self-righteousness. However, it had been given for the opposite reason - to show Israel that they fell far short of attaining righteousness. In fact, anything less than moral perfection would damn them:
- “Cursed be anyone who does not confirm the words of this law by doing them." (Deuteronomy 27:26)
Although we might find this offensive and unjust, this message of condemnation, nevertheless, is the consistent message of Scripture. Jesus therefore warned:
- “But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, 'You fool!' will be liable to the hell of fire.” (Matthew 5:22)
The smallest infraction could damn us. James therefore insisted:
- For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it. (James 2:10)
The slightest sin would make us liable to punishment (Romans 6:23). Therefore, Israel's hope had to be in the mercy of God and not in their performance:
- He does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities. For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him; as far as the east is from the west, so far does he remove our transgressions from us. As a father shows compassion to his children, so the Lord shows compassion to those who fear him. (Psalms 103:10-13)
It might not seem fair that God would damn us for a single sin, or that if a righteous man would turn from God in his last day on earth, he too would be damned. But consider this - if anyone was convinced that they their accumulated virtue entitled them to turn from God, it meant that they never knew a Him and that their self-righteousness had blinded them from the magnitude of their many sins. It also suggests that even from the start, they were trusting in themselves and not in the mercy of God. Instead, had they any awareness of their true moral status, they would have cried out for forgiveness and mercy.
Jesus’ parable illustrates this principle. A proud Pharisee and a broken sinner enter the Temple to pray. The Pharisee trusts in his own performance and prays accordingly:
- “God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.” (Luke 18:11-12)
There is no hint that the Pharisee didn’t perform these “righteous” acts. He probably did. However, he had been trusting in himself (Luke 18:9). Meanwhile, the sinner lacked this “assurance” and therefore prayed for God’s mercy alone. Jesus explained:
- “I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.” (Luke 18:14)
This is essentially God’s instructions to Ezekiel. Those who exalt themselves to think of themselves as worthy and consequently turn from trusting in God are damned, while those who know that they cannot trust in themselves and turn to God are forgiven.