Growing up in church I did not often hear the word “grace” uttered unless it was accompanied by the word “cheap” and said in a disapproving tone with a disdainful look.

We were stalwart champions of obedience, unlike those we believed disrespected God’s Law by spreading the shameful nonsense that a convicted murderer or even someone who hurt children could just tell God they were sorry, ask him to forgive them, claim Jesus as their savior and then expect to be forgiven. If that was the case, we said, what would stop people from doing whatever they wanted over and over and then just telling God they were sorry, again?

As a young girl, this was my warped view of grace; the teaching that someone could manipulate the system to get one over on God and humanity.

At the core of this terrible misinterpretation lies a fundamental lack of understanding of God’s commitment to both justice and mercy. God has written the Law on every human heart. We know the way things should be. We know right from wrong. Even an agnostic would concede that, if there was a God, he would expect us to do what is right. In the deepest part of our beings, we see that to even conceive of the notion that it is acceptable for anyone to knowingly and willfully do what is wrong and expect God not to care is absurd. That would infer a God who was not concerned about justice; an impotent God who allowed people to run rampant, murdering, hurting children, robbing banks, etc. and dotingly patting them on the head while apparently showing no concern for the victims of their violence. We all know that can’t be the good news!

Fortunately, the God of Scripture is not like that. He cares as much about justice as he does about mercy. They are of equal importance to him, just as we instinctively knew they must be; but, his ways of achieving both are not our ways.

God’s costly provision of justice came through his son, Jesus Christ, who was punished for the wrongdoing of everyone who ever lived. He took the deserved punishment of the child molesters, bank robbers, serial killers, etc. upon himself, and suffered in their place. Justice was meted out on Christ so that God’s mercy could be shown to both the victims and the victimizers who believe in him.

If you are the one who was wronged, or their loved one, this can be a hard truth. It is the scandal of the cross. We crave the blood of the perpetrator, not the blood of a substitute. Even if you are the guilty one, it is a hard truth, because you know what you deserve, and it is almost impossible to accept that your punishment could be borne by another.

The Laws of the land are in place to punish those who break them, to protect us from a chaos where criminals get away with their crimes. We want the same to be true in God’s economy, because the law is natural to our hearts, but the gospel is not; it is foreign, counterintuitive, outside of our natural understanding and must be revealed through God’s Spirit. It feels like a perversion of justice that, where God is concerned, criminals go free because of Christ.

Out of a heart for the victims and a misguided desire to honor God, I, and those in the church of my youth, tripped over that stumbling block of the cross, where God’s justice and mercy met; fearing that this “grace” provided a deadly loophole where God’s mercy would be used against him.

One of the ways we could have found reassurance, however, is by taking a closer look at John Chapter 10, verses 1-5, which says, “Truly, truly, I say to you, he who does not enter the sheepfold by the door but climbs in by another way, that man is a thief and a robber. But he who enters by the door is the shepherd of the sheep. To him the gatekeeper opens. The sheep hear his voice, and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes before them, and the sheep follow him, for they know his voice. A stranger they will not follow, but they will flee from him, for they do not know the voice of strangers.”

These verses, in Jesus’ own words, give us a picture of the safety found in the life of grace. Those to whom the good news of God’s all-sufficient grace has been revealed are the sheep that hear the voice of Jesus and recognize it as the voice of their shepherd. He leads and they keep following his voice. No one is going to fool anyone. The Shepherd isn’t going to be conned into being used by some phony sheep. He knows his sheep by name; he would recognize an imposter in a heartbeat. Neither are the sheep going to be duped and be led astray; they will run as fast as their little wooly legs can carry them if they don’t recognize their shepherd’s voice.

Am I saying that people who believe they have been saved by grace through faith in Christ alone will not sin? Absolutely not! That’s why we needed a savior in the first place, because we are incapable of sustaining obedience! But scripture has promised that Jesus will continue to go before us, speaking to us, guiding us, protecting us, and keeping his flock intact. We will sin, we will wander off and he will bring us back; but we won’t be running amok, wantonly, impenitently flaunting our sins with the express intention of demanding that God give us a pass. It just won’t happen. Jesus knows his sheep and we know our shepherd’s voice.

Will there be people saved who don’t deserve to be saved? You bet! Because there is no one who deserves to be saved. We are all guilty criminals whose punishment was borne by Christ so that God could lavish his mercy on us. Everyone who is saved will be saved because the Shepherd led them there from the cross, where both God’s justice and mercy were satisfied.