On the ruins of an ancient cathedral in Ardmore, County Waterford, on the south coast of Ireland, there are a series of pictures carved in stone. Each picture tells a story from the Bible, and most of them are still complete enough to be recognisable. Adam and Eve are under a tree, and three wise men are bringing gifts to Jesus. Solomon is there with a sword, making a judgment between two women who claimed the same baby. There’s also a pair of weighing scales—but what Bible story is that?
Based on similar pictures in in other places, this one is thought to represent scales of judgement, the kind that would be used to weigh up good deeds against bad ones. If so, the concept is Biblical—for example, Hannah prays in 1 Samuel 2:3, “the Lord is the God of knowledge; and by him actions are weighed.” Then Solomon writes in Proverbs 16:2 that even human “motives are weighed by the Lord.” Actions, and motives. Outside, and in. God knows all things, so he knows the good we’ve done, and the bad. He knows the good in our hearts, and the evil. He is also just, so he knows exactly how to weigh all of these things properly.
I, on the other hand, do not. How much does a good deed weigh on the scales of perfect justice? How many good actions does it take to balance against a bad one? What about bad attitudes? If I do a good deed with mixed motives, does it still count as good, or have I ruined it with my divided heart that hides so much selfishness and pride and envy right alongside whatever good I’m trying to do? If God weighs my motives all the way down to the bottom of my soul, then have I done even one single good deed that he could weigh up as thoroughly pure and untarnished? The longer I live with myself, the more convinced I am that I don’t have any good deeds of this kind of quality to offer.
That’s a problem. It means that even the things I hope to put on the “good” side of the scale are tainted. Can they fit on that side at all? And of course, there’s another vital question: how much do the scales need to tip for the judgment to come down in my favour? Will it be enough if the good just barely outweighs the bad? That seems like it could leave me with a glimmer of hope, but it doesn’t inspire confidence. Even with all my years of practice at self-justification, I still know without any doubt that I’m a long way from what I should be. Just a quick question: does God grade on a curve? Because there are some people, you know, they’re really bad…
The scales of the just judge of everything are perfectly balanced. The standard is undiluted perfection. No loopholes. No excuses. No curve.
The judge knows exactly how badly the scales tip against us. His response? He did not leave us hopeless. God the just judge yearns for his children with all the mercy and compassion in his infinite heart. And so, Jesus came down from Heaven’s throne and lived a lifetime of actual perfection, complete, undiluted purity, goodness without a single trace of evil. His life, his deeds, his motives, when placed on the scales of perfect justice, weighed as perfect goodness, with nothing to balance against them. Then he died, completely innocent of wrong, to purposefully bear the full weight of God’s justice for sins he did not commit. Now he gives—as a gift—what we could never accomplish through our own efforts: for anyone who will come to him and trust him (the Bible calls this repentance and faith), the weight of sin will be removed by his completed payment, and the weight of his perfection will be placed, for us, on the scales of justice. He did not lower his standard to accommodate our evil. He could not, and still be just. So he maintained his justice, but in his mercy and love he also made a way to became “the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus” (Romans 3:26).
When I see the scales on the cathedral, I know I could never measure up on my own. But I’m not worried. I know who holds those scales, and I know he holds me, too.