One of the great dangers confronting those who would give themselves to mercy ministry is that of forgetting the antithesis. Biblical wisdom always remembers the antithesis, and places it where God has placed it. Forgetting the antithesis frequently consists of selecting a biblical virtue, absolutizing it, and using it to contradict or “balance” other biblical virtues. This is the basic (and very serious) error of the pacifist. The problem is not what he affirms so much, but rather what he denies.
Righteous peace is a glorious thing (Is. 11:9) but must never be set in opposition to righteous war, because God Himself is the Warrior, training us in the arts of war (Ps. 144:1). Who is it that does this? He is the Prince of Peace (Is. 9:6). Unity is a glorious thing (Ps. 133:1), but must never be set against righteous confrontation and rebuke, and separation if necessary. This is why it is not a contradiction to divide from a divisive man (Rom. 16:17).
When someone finds a hammer, everything looks like a nail. When someone first discovers how much the Bible extols and urges mercy (as it most certainly does), it is easy to forget the virtue that can be found in showing no mercy. God is the one who shows mercy to a thousand generations (Num 14:18; Dt. 7:9). God is also the one who refuses to show mercy (Is. 9:17; 27:11; Hos. 1:6). The believing response to such apparent tensions is to accept it all at face value, and let God sort it out. The unbelieving response is to privilege one set of verses over the other, and, as time goes by, to forget about the neglected set of verses entirely.
But the fact is plain enough. Consider the fierce prophecy concerning Judas, and look closely at the reason for the judgment.
“Set thou a wicked man over him: and let Satan stand at his right hand. When he shall be judged, let him be condemned: and let his prayer become sin. Let his days be few; and let another take his office. Let his children be fatherless, and his wife a widow. Let his children be continually vagabonds, and beg: let them seek their bread also out of their desolate places. Let the extortioner catch all that he hath; and let the strangers spoil his labour. Let there be none to extend mercy unto him: neither let there be any to favour his fatherless children. Let his posterity be cut off; and in the generation following let their name be blotted out. Let the iniquity of his fathers be remembered with the LORD; and let not the sin of his mother be blotted out. Let them be before the LORD continually, that he may cut off the memory of them from the earth. Because that he remembered not to shew mercy, but persecuted the poor and needy man, that he might even slay the broken in heart” (Ps. 109:6-16).
This, despite the fact that Judas talked a pretty good game. He indignantly wanted to know why that expensive ointment was not used to benefit the poor (John 12:4-5). But he said this because he had discovered, as many others have done, that the poor are a gold mine (John 12:6). He talked mercy, but refused to show mercy. As a result, he perished miserably without mercy.
Lest anyone think that this is “an Old Testament” thing, remember that Judas did his pilfering in the very presence of the Lord Jesus. And we should also remember what Jesus promises us — blessed are the merciful for they shall obtain mercy (Matt. 5:7). And the Lord’s brother puts it this way:
“For he shall have judgment without mercy, that hath shewed no mercy; and mercy rejoiceth against judgment” (Jas 2:13).
We have to remember that the standard applied by God at the Last Day is the benchmark of all our standards. If idle words will not be brought before the judgment seat (Matt. 12:36), then what could possibly be the problem with idle words? So this means that without a divine judgment against the merciless, we have no basis for even thinking that mercy is a good thing. God, in such a circumstance, would not care enough about mercy to defend it. And if God doesn’t care about something, then why should we? God judges according to His own nature and character, and so this means that when He is merciless and throws merciless sinners into Hell, He is not violating any internal standard. He is expressing His character, not violating it. Moreover, when he judges such people for being merciless, He is establishing for us the way of mercy. Without that, we have no orientation to mercy at all.
So unless this framework is settled in the bones of mercy ministers, the work they do will descend over time into a sink of sentimentalism. The foundations of mercy are found at the mercy seat, and the blood that was sprinkled there was for the sheep, and not for the goats. And the doctrine of the final judgment, violent as it is, is the other great touchstone. This is why, when you are checking out a charitable Christian ministry, two of the more important questions you might ask will be, first, “What is your view of the vicarious and substitutionary atonement of Christ?” and second, “What is your doctrine of the last judgment?” If the answers given are robust and orthodox, then you at least have the foundation in place for real mercy work.