“O Lord our God, you answered them; you were a forgiving God to them, but an avenger of their wrongdoings.” (ESV – Read the chapter)
One of the things that can be so frustrating about the Scriptures is that over and over they take two ideas which seem to be contradictory, declare them both to be true, and, rather than resolving the tension, simply leave it in place.
Some examples of this would be divine sovereignty and human responsibility, Jesus’ full humanity and full divinity, and the three-persons and one-person nature of the Trinity. Right here we see another tension. The psalmist declares God to be both a forgiver of sins, but also an avenger of wrongdoings.
How can this be? If God forgives, then why would He need to avenge? Yet, I think both of these emphases are necessary. They offer us a reminder of the full character of God. He is fully just and fully loving. If we take one characteristic without the other we will run into trouble and be left with someone other than the God revealed in the pages of Scripture.
When we bring God’s love out of proportion to His justice we do have a God who forgives, but we start to lean in the direction of a God who is permissive and doesn’t deal with sin as fully and seriously as it demands. On the other hand, when we take God’s justice out of proportion to His love, we are left with a God who deals with sin fully and seriously, but who only punishes without mercy. Neither of these ends are ultimately to our benefit. Neither of these ends leaves us with a God who is worthy of worship. Both emphases must be held together in tension. Together they make a God who is perfect.
God readily and willingly forgives all those who go to Him with humility and sincerity. At the same time, He will always deal with sin justly, avenging the wrongs we have committed. How does this work? It works because of Jesus. In Christ the justice of God was satisfied. Sin was dealt with in its entirety, but on our behalf instead of by ourselves. In Christ the love of God is also satisfied because with justice served, He is able to justly extend mercy to sinners. The balance is perfect.
If we were the ones trying to work out this conundrum of how to deal with sin rightly while yet offering mercy and grace to repentant sinners, we would have wound up with a mess. God in His gloriously perfect combination of justice and love did it just right. He forgave sins and avenged wrongs. Praise His name!