Were ever more beautiful words penned than these?
“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” (Ps. 103:10-12).
Consider for a moment how we “deal” with others. We keep fresh in our minds their injustices toward us. We nurture the memory of their faults and failings. We never let them forget what they did and we often make sure others are mindful of it as well. We seek every opportunity, often secretly and surreptitiously, to make them pay for their transgressions. We hold it in our hearts and over their heads and persuade ourselves that it’s only fair that they be treated this way.
Now consider again this description of God in his “dealings” with us: “He does NOT deal with us according to our sins” (v. 10a). Our sins do not constitute the rule or standard or plumb line according to which God makes his decisions on how to treat us. He does not recall or bring to the fore or publicly announce our history of hatred and lust and blasphemy and greed and pride before he formulates his plan for our life or before responding to something we’ve just said or done.
Better still is the second statement in v. 10, namely, that God does NOT “repay us according to our iniquities” (v. 10b). It’s certainly not because our iniquities do not deserve repayment. They are deep and many and heinous and are deserving of the most severe, indeed, eternal judgment. But those who “fear him” (v. 11b) need never fear that he will exact payment or demand suffering or insist, according to the rigors of his law and unyielding holiness, that we endure the penal consequences of violating his will and ways.
In fact, so far is it from the realm of possibility that we might ever be dealt with “according to our sins” or repaid “according to our iniquities” that David compares it to the distance between earth and the highest heavens and the distance between east and west.
The Hubble Telescope has given us breathtaking pictures of a galaxy some 13 billion lights years from earth. Yes, 13 billion light years! Remember, a light year is 6,000,000,000,000 (six trillion) miles. That would put this galaxy at 78,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 miles from earth! In case you were wondering, we count from million, to billion, to trillion, to quadrillion, to quintillion, to sextillion. So, this galaxy is 78 sextillion miles from earth.
If you traveled 500 mph non-stop, literally sixty-minutes of every hour, twenty-four hours in every day, seven days in every week, fifty-two weeks in every year, with not a moment’s pause or delay, it would take you 20,000,000,000,000,000 years (that’s 20 quadrillion years) to get there! And that would only get you to the farthest point that our best telescopes have yet been able to detect. If the universe is infinite, as I believe it is, this would be the mere fringe of what lies beyond.
My point, the point of the psalmist, is that the magnitude of such distance is a pathetically small comparison to the likelihood that you will ever be dealt with according to your sins or repaid for your iniquities! If you were ever inclined to pursue your transgressions so that you might place yourself beneath their condemning power, 78,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 miles is an infinitesimally small fraction of the distance you must travel to find them!
Now, here’s the question: Why does God not deal with us according to our sins? Why does he not repay us according to our iniquities? In other words, on what grounds does he take such magnanimous and marvelous action? Does he simply wave the wand of mercy and dismiss our guilt? Does he merely shrug off our rebellion and unbelief and hostility as if they were nothing and of no consequence? Does he ignore the dictates of his holiness when he forgives us? Does he pretend that justice matters little or that love trumps righteousness?
Clearly the answer is no! The reason why God does not deal with usaccording to our sins is because he has dealt with Jesus in accordance with what they require! The reason why God does not repay us according to our iniquities is because he has repaid his Son in accordance with what holiness demands (in perfect harmony, I might add, with the will and voluntary love of the Son himself)!
David wrote these words of hope and life from within the context of the Old Testament sacrificial system. He could confidently speak of such grace and kindness because he personally knew of the Day of Atonement, of the blood sacrifice, of the scapegoat onto whose head his sins were symbolically placed and transferred (see Leviticus 16).
In our case, on this side of the cross that forever and finally fulfills these old covenant types and symbols, we can confidently rest in the freedom of forgiveness because God has “put forward [Christ Jesus] as a propitiation by his blood” (Romans 3:25).
God did not willy-nilly cast aside our sins as if they were of no consequence. Rather, he “laid on him [the Son, our Savior] the iniquity of us all” (Isa. 53:6b). God did not casually ignore the dictates of his holiness and righteous character. Rather, he “wounded” Jesus “for our transgressions” and “crushed” him “for our iniquities” (Isa. 53:5).
This, and this alone, is why we can sing and celebrate that God does not and never will “deal with us according to our sins” or “repay us according to our iniquities”. The measure of God’s “steadfast love” (v. 11) is the depth of the sacrifice he endured in giving up his only Son to suffer in our stead (cf. Romans 8:32).
I hope all can see why the current debate over penal substitutionary atonement is so eternally important, for if God did not deal with the Lord Jesus Christ according to your sins, he will deal with you in accordance with them. And if God did not repay in his Son what your iniquities deserve, he will repay you. It’s just that simple.
Psalm 103 begins with the exhortation that we not forget all the many benefits that God has graciously bestowed, chief among which is that he “forgives all your iniquity” (v. 3a). Now we know how. Now we know why. So let us all sing:
“Before the throne of God above
I have a strong and perfect plea.
A great high Priest whose Name is Love
Who ever lives and pleads for me.
My name is graven on His hands,
My name is written on His heart.
I know that while in Heaven He stands,
No tongue can bid me thence depart.
When Satan tempts me to despair
And tells me of the guilt within,
Upward I look and see Him there
Who made an end of all my sin.
Because the sinless Savior died
My sinful soul is counted free.
For God the just is satisfied
To look on Him and pardon me.
Behold Him there the risen Lamb,
My perfect spotless righteousness,
The great unchangeable I AM,
The King of glory and of grace.
One in Himself I cannot die,
My soul is purchased by His blood,
My life is hid with Christ on high,
With Christ my Savior and my God!” (C. L. Bancroft, 1863)