One of my favorite illustrations about the dilemma that we face with respect to understanding God's mercy goes back to the early days of my career as a teacher in college and seminary. One of my first teaching assignments was to teach 250 freshmen a required course on "Introduction to the Old Testament." Here I had 250 students assembled in a large lecture hall, very uncomfortable, trying to communicate with so many students at one time. I had to print up in advance the requirements for the course because I'd already learned, very quickly, that college students are all budding Philadelphia lawyers. You have to "dot your i's and cross your t's" to make sure that the assignments are clearly set forth. I gave them a published syllabus and told them what their requirements would be. I said, "We have three very small papers, book report type things, that are required during this semester. The first one is due at noon on September 30, the on second October 30, and the third on November 30. Now here's the way it goes: I want these finished, on my desk at 12:00 noon on the appointed times unless you are physically confined to the hospital or the infirmary or there is a death in the immediate family." We had to spell out all this sort of thing for the college students. I said, "Does everybody understand the assignment?" They said, "Oh, yes indeed."
So, September 30 came around and 225 of my students brought their papers in and presented them dutifully at the proper time. 25 of these poor souls had failed to complete their assignments and they were scared to death. These were freshmen, just making the transition from high school and they were in a posture of abject humility. They said, "Oh Professor Sproul, please don't give us an 'F' for this grade." I had told them that if they didn't get their paper in on time they would get an "F" for that assignment. They said, "Please give us some more time, give us one more chance." They were begging me for grace, for mercy. They wanted an extension. I said, "Okay, I'll give you an extension. But don't let it happen again. Remember the next assignment is October 30. I want those papers on time." They said, "Absolutely. They will be there."
October 30 came around. 200 of my students came and put their term papers on my desk. 50 of them were now assembled outside in terror because they hadn't planned their time properly, and were not prepared. So once again these students came to me pleading. They said, "Oh Professor, we didn't budget our time properly. It's mid-term, we have so many assignments all coming in at the same time, so many pressures, it's Homecoming. Please give us just one more chance." They begged me with earnest faces and I was a soft-hearted guy and I said, "Okay, okay. I'll give you one more chance, but don't let it happen again." You know what they did? They began to sing spontaneously, "We love you Prof. Sproul, oh yes we do." So I was the most popular professor in the school for 30 days.
But 30 days later the third paper came due. This time 150 students came into the classroom with their papers prepared and the other 100 came in as casual, as cavalier, as you can imagine. They didn't have their papers, they weren't worried in the slightest, and I said to them, "Where are you term papers?" They said, "Hey Prof, don't worry about it. We'll have it for you in a couple of days, no sweat." I stopped them right there in their tracks and I took out that dreadful little black book and I took out my pen and I said, "Johnson, where's your term paper?" He said, "I don't have it Professor." So I wrote an "F" in the book. "Greenwood, where's your paper?" "I don't have it, sir." I put "F" in the book. What do you think was the response of those students? Unmitigated fury. In one voice they called out, "THAT'S NOT FAIR!"
I said, "What was that? Johnson, did I just hear you say that's not fair?" He said, "Yes, that's not fair." He was furious. I said, "Okay. I don't ever want to be thought of as being unfair or unjust. Johnson, it's justice that you want?" He said, "Yes!" I said, "Okay, if I recall, you were late the last time, weren't you?" He said, "Yes." I said, "Okay. I'll go back and change that grade to an 'F'." So I erased his passing grade and gave him an "F." I said, "Is there anybody else that wants justice?" Nobody wanted justice. Do you see what has happened here? The first time they were pleading with me in utter, pathetic humility, and I said sure. The second time they begged. By the third time, not only did they begin to assume mercy, but they began to demand it. They assumed now that I was obligated to be gracious to them.
Friends, that's what we do with God.
Anybody out there still want God to be fair with them?