In Exodus 34:6-7, God declares God's character to Moses:
the Lord passed by before him, and proclaimed, The Lord, The Lord God,
merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abundant in goodness and
truth,Keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression
and sin, and that will by no means clear the guilty; visiting the
iniquity of the fathers upon the children, and upon the children's
children, unto the third and to the fourth generation." (KJV)
one time heard a Presbyterian minister say in a sermon that this passage
used to puzzle him. The passage says that God is merciful and
forgiving, but also that God punishes sin. The minister wondered how
God could be both forgiving and punish sin. His conclusion was that
God's mercy and justice were reconciled on the cross, where Jesus was
punished for the sins of others, thereby bringing forgiveness to those
who receive it.
I've heard this sort of spiel often in evangelical circles. The thing is, it does not appear to be present in Exodus 34:6-7. Exodus
34:6-7 does not say that God is forgiving and punishes sin, and so
therefore God will forgive people by punishing a single individual in
their place. Rather, the passage says that God is forgiving and God
punishes sin, and so therefore God will hold the guilty accountable and
punish their children and children's children.
But the minister still raises a good question: How can God be forgiving and yet punish sin?
I can't say that I have an answer that fully satisfies me. I can say
that God forgives those who repent and perhaps make use of other means
of atonement, while God punishes those who do not repent, but the text
does not explicitly say that. I can say that God forgives some people
but not others----for example, there were people who worshiped the
Golden Calf who died in God's wrath, and there were people who worshiped
the Calf who survived. But I'd have a theological problem with God
being so arbitrary. Plus, in sparing some, is not God clearing the
guilty, something that God said that God would not do? Another option
is to say that God's forgiveness and justice are mixed somehow: that God
forgave Israel by letting her survive as a nation rather than blotting
her out for her sin, for example, and yet God disciplined Israel. But
that doesn't sound like full-fledged mercy and forgiveness!
I don't know. But I will say one thing: While there are many people
who believe that typical evangelical spiels provide the answer to their
quests and their confusion, I do not think that in my own case, which is
why I continue to be on a quest.