The reality is that God is merciful, but that isn’t quite the same as being tolerant. First, many people fail to understand the seriousness of sin and the great cost to God personally to forgive us our sins. When we see the combination of his holiness and justice we gain a greater understanding of his mercy. And that will go a long way to answering why he can’t tolerate sin and yet can be merciful at the same time.
There is a reason God can’t stand sin. You see, his core nature is holy and pure. There is no impurity of motive or action with him, for he is perfect and without sin. (See Deuteronomy 32:4; Isaiah 54:5; and Revelation 4:8.) So a holy God cannot be in relationship with sin in any manner. The Bible says of him, “Your eyes are too pure to look on evil; you cannot tolerate wrong” (Habakkuk 1:13 niv). He is so holy that he “cannot allow sin in any form” (Habakkuk 1:13). To do so would violate the very essence of who he is.
So our sin naturally separates us from God. And a relational separation from him causes spiritual death. The “wages of sin,” the Bible says, “is death” (Romans 6:23). It is this death or separation from God that preserves his holiness.
And yet because he is a God of love, the Bible declares of him that “you…delight to show mercy” (Micah 7:18 niv). King David said that his “mercy endures forever” (Psalm 107:1 nkjv). In the New Testament it says, “God is so rich in mercy, and he loved us so much” (Ephesians 2:4). But even with God being merciful toward us, there is the problem we mentioned—the problem with sin. God can’t have any relationship with sin, and we as humans have a condition called sin. So what is he to do?
How God’s Characteristics Combine
The answer lies in the combination of his loving mercy and his perfect justice. Mercy in and of itself cannot overlook or even forgive sin without sin being dealt with justly. Sin has to be paid for. And that is where God’s justice comes in.
“The Lord is just!” the Bible says. “He is my rock! There is no evil in him!” (Psalm 92:15). “All his acts are just and true” (Daniel 4:37). It is his just nature that demands that sin be separated from purity, that wrong be righted, and evil be vanquished. Yet in this righteous insistence upon justice, he is still merciful. “We cannot imagine the power of the Almighty; but even though he is just and righteous, he does not destroy us” ( Job 37:23). So instead of being tolerant of our sin, God’s sense of justice combined with mercy makes the payment for it.
So in his mercy he pays for our sin with nothing less than the life of his only Son. We inherited our sin condition at birth from the first human couple that sinned (Romans 5:12). But “God paid a ransom to save you from the empty life you inherited from your ancestors. The ransom he paid was not mere gold or silver. It was the precious blood of Christ, the sinless, spotless Lamb of God” (1 Peter 1:18-19).
The “spotless Lamb of God” satisfies the demand of both God’s holiness and his justice. His holiness is satisfied because Jesus was sinless—a perfect sacrifice without sin. We are “justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood” (Romans 3:24-25 niv). His justice is satisfied because Christ’s death paid our “wages of sin,” which is death. God paid a very high price to grant us forgiveness. While he cannot be tolerant of sin, he has paid the price so he can extend his mercy to us through Christ.
This chapter originally appeared in 77 FAQs About God and the Bible by Sean McDowell and Josh McDowell (2012). Used by permission from Harvest House Publishers.