I have a special cross. It’s from Jerusalem. Here’s how I got it: I wanted a cross, so I went into a little shop just a few blocks from where Jesus died on the cross. I saw this one. I asked how much it was, and the owner said, “$100.” Now, I have to tell you a secret. I’m really cheap! There was no way I was going to pay $100. So, I said, “No thanks” and started to leave. But the owner stopped me. He said, “Just for you, I’ll give you a special deal: $75.” I still didn’t have $75. And I’m still cheap. So I said, “No, I’m going to look somewhere else.” But before I could leave, the man went and looked out the door. He made sure no one else was around. Then he came really close and whispered, “Just for you: $50.”
When he said that, an old man sitting behind the counter suddenly started to moan. I didn’t even know he was there! He said, “There you go again, giving away our store. We can’t sell that for $50. Send him away!” Well, I still didn’t have $50. But the owner didn’t stop. He said, “Look at the cross. It’s not just a cross. It has rocks from Jesus’ tomb and leaves from the crown of thorns and sand from under the cross and red stones stained with Jesus’ blood.” I said, “I don’t think that’s really true.” He said, “You can’t prove that! But just for you—ahh! I shouldn’t say this! We’re going to lose money!—just for you: $25.” And the old man moaned, “$25? What are you thinking? You are going to ruin us!” Well, I had $25. So I got the cross.
This is how our deals work, right? You always try to get the very best deal for yourself. That owner wasn’t really thinking about me. He wanted money. I wasn’t thinking about him. I wanted a cross. So we bargained back and forth until we were both happy—except for the old man…
Well, if you like deals, God has a deal for us. God has something he’s offering to us too. Except what God offers is more important than a wooden cross. Do you know what it is? Eternal life. Eternal life in heaven and the forgiveness of sins that comes with it here on earth. That’s a pretty big thing, right? If it’s $25 for a wooden cross, how much for heaven? Here’s God’s deal: “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” Here’s God’s deal: “I’ll punish Jesus for all of your sins, and in return I’ll make you the perfect children of God.” Your sins for Jesus’ perfection. That’s the deal. How does that sound?
It sounds upside-down, doesn’t it? In God’s deal, God does everything! We’re not used to this. I had to pay to get this cross—and bargain for it too! We always think that we’ve got to do something. Doesn’t it work the same way with God? So we bargain with God, “I’ll be good… I’ll do this… I won’t do that…” Except, God doesn’t want any of that. He says, “Jesus died for all your sins, and I’ve made you my perfect children. Period. You don’t have to do anything to earn or deserve it.” No bargaining necessary. That’s God’s deal. How does that sound? Great!
But is that really fair? God is always fair, right? Another way to say fair is “just.” God is just. Justice means that you give people what they deserve. If someone gets away with stealing from someone else, that’s not just. They need to be punished! If someone gets away with cheating, that’s not just. They need to be punished! Justice is when you give people what they deserve. Since God is just, God doesn’t ignore sin. He punishes sin like sin deserves.
In fact, the Bible says, “The LORD will not leave the guilty unpunished” (Nahum 1:3). He can’t! He’s just, and justice means giving people what they deserve. That’s scary, isn’t it? What do we deserve? Heaven? No way! God knows all of our sins. Even the ones we hide from our teachers and the ones you hide from your parents and the ones we hide from our spouses. God knows. And you know that God knows. When you sin, how do you feel? Guilty! That’s your conscience reminding you that you are sinful and God is just, and that means we deserve God’s punishment for our sins. That’s justice!
But at the same time, the Bible makes another set of promises about God. It says, “He does not treat us as our sins deserve or repay us according to our iniquities… 12 As far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us” (Psalm 103:10,12). “He does not treat us as our sins deserve.” Do you know what the word is for when you don’t punish people the way they deserve? Mercy. God is merciful. Sometimes Christians find it helpful to think of the difference between grace and mercy. Grace is God’s undeserved love. Grace is getting good things we don’t deserve. Mercy is not getting the bad things we do deserve. Make sense? God does not treat us as our sins deserve. He’s merciful!
So God is just: he always gives people what they deserve. And God is merciful: He doesn’t give people what they deserve. Does that make sense? No. It sounds crazy! It’s a contradiction. How can God give people what they deserve and not give people what they deserve at the same time? How can God be just and punish sin and be merciful and forgive sin at the same time? That sounds impossible. Which is it? Is God going to judge my sins? If so, I know I deserve to go to hell. Or is God going to forgive my sins? If so, then I know he will take me to heaven. So which is it? Is God just or merciful?
Yes! That’s the answer. “Yes!” God is both just and merciful. How is that possible? It only makes sense when you look at the cross of Jesus. When you see Jesus dying on the cross, does God punish sin? Yes! Big time. Think of all that Jesus suffered. God is just! He doesn’t let any sin slide. But look again at Jesus dying on the cross. Is God merciful? Yes! Because he didn’t punish you and me. He doesn’t give us what we deserve. He punished Jesus in our place, so that we are forgiven and saved. There has never been justice like you see God’s justice in the cross. There has never been mercy like you see God’s mercy in the cross.
“God made him who had no sin to be sin for us so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” I thought I got a good deal on my cross, but it’s nothing compared to the best deal ever on the cross. Our sins for Jesus’ righteousness. You don’t even have to bargain. You don’t have to pay anything at all. But that doesn’t mean it was cheap. It cost Jesus’ life on the cross. God took the one Person who never sinned and treated him like sin. And he took all the people who do sin—you and me—and made us what Jesus is—absolutely perfect. So when the devil accuses you of your sins, you can tell the devil, “Devil, if you have a problem with my sins, you’ll have to take it up with Jesus. Because those sins aren’t mine anymore. They belong to Jesus!” Because when Jesus makes a deal, he doesn’t think about himself. He thinks about you. Your sin is paid for. You are the righteous children of God. Because there is justice and mercy at the cross!