I’ve been reading Matthew’s gospel recently, and one of the things that has stood out to me on this reading is Jesus’ compassion for people oppressed by sin. We often think about sin only in terms of our agency, that is, sin is something we do and are responsible for. Jesus certainly doesn’t diminish that understanding of sin and its consequences. He consistently calls people to repent of their sin and self-absorption and to believe the good news of the kingdom of God.
But Jesus also sees sin as a power that exerts itself over us and renders us helpless to rescue ourselves from its vice grip. He sees the crowds and has compassion on them “because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd” (9:36). He has compassion on those living with the painful consequences of a fallen world by healing their diseases (14:14). He has compassion not only on Israel but also on those living in Gentile territory, feeding their hungry bodies and souls (15:32).
His exorcisms also demonstrate that he knows the demonic powers have their hooks in us. He describes his Satan-plundering work as one who binds the strongman (Satan) and takes his property from him (12:29). It is not so much that sin is either something we do or something that has a power over us. It is both.
This same idea is also communicated in the Old Testament. When God reveals his glory to Moses on Mt. Sinai, he also reveals the depths of his compassionate character:
The LORD passed before him and proclaimed, “The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation” (Ex. 34:6-7).
God is just and will punish the wicked. But he is also gracious and merciful and desires to pardon and deliver us from sin’s power.
The Psalms express the same truth. Consider just one passage that demonstrates the compassion of God for weak and helpless sinners. Psalm 103:8-14,
The LORD is merciful and gracious,
slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.
He will not always chide,
nor will he keep his anger forever.
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.
As a father shows compassion to his children,
so the LORD shows compassion to those who fear him.
For he knows our frame;
he remembers that we are dust.
God’s mercy is not permissiveness. He doesn’t suspend his justice in order to extend forgiveness (that’s why the cross was necessary for salvation, Rom. 3:25-26). But God knows our weakness. He “knows our frame” and “remembers that we are dust.” God is not surprised that we stumble and fall, many times in the face of the same temptations. He is like a compassionate father, who sees his children struggling. He knows. He remembers. And he extends compassion and mercy.
The apostle Paul also sees sin not only as a choice we make (it is certainly that) but also as a force or power that has been unleashed on the human race, abetted by the demonic principalities and powers. Unbelievers are those who have been blinded by Satan, “the god of this age” (2 Cor. 4:4). Paul conceives of the cross of Christ not only cancelling our sin debt but also disarming the demonic rulers and authorities by triumphing over them (Col. 2:14).
To highlight sin as a power over us is not to obviate our responsibility or guilt—far from it. It is to highlight the depth of God’s mercy in Christ, who understands that sin, though our own doing, is not something we can free ourselves from. He stoops all the way into our darkness, taking on the powers himself, in order to lift us up into the light and liberate us from sin’s bondage. One of the key terms for salvation in the Scriptures is, after all, redemption—a concept rooted in the Exodus, when God bought back his people from slavery.
We need to apply this truth both to ourselves and to others. We need to know that God has this kind of mercy and compassion for us in our struggles with sin. God is not a slave master, waiting for us to mess up so that he can bring down his hand of vengeance. He is a Father, recall, who has compassion on his children and knows our weakness. But we also need to be the conduits of this kind of mercy to others. Rather than seeing those who offend us or those in rebellion against God as our enemies, we become children of our heavenly Father when we too remember and when we too know that humans are dust. They are weak. They are oppressed. They are blinded by Satan. They are like sheep without a shepherd. May we become the kind of people who bear witness to this merciful Good Shepherd, not by being moral scolds, but by being willing to bear with people in their helplessness and to show them the path to true liberation.