As Christians, nothing gives us greater joy than to see sinners bow the knee to the Lord Jesus Christ. We rejoice to see believing sinners baptised and join the church. As there is rejoicing in the presence of God over one sinner who repents, so there is rejoicing in the church over a single sinner who trust in Christ.

At least, that is usually the case. Sometimes, our feelings are a little more conflicted. We may wonder whether God would really save someone like Jeffrey Dahmer—just as the early Christians wondered whether God would really save someone like the notorious Saul of Tarsus. Sometimes, our rejoicing gives away to scepticism—perhaps even anger—as it did with Jonah. Because some people just don’t deserve grace! (See if you can spot the problem with that logic.)

Jonah had preached God’s word to Nineveh. The people had responded in repentance and, consistent with his character, God had forgiven. Jonah was angry—and he believed that his anger was justified. Chapter 4 explores that anger.

Let’s psychoanalyse Jonah briefly and see how we can relate to him. Why did Jonah feel that his anger was justified? I imagine he felt that way for at least three reasons.

First, Jonah thought a certain way about God. God might forgive morally upright sinners, but surely he is not a God who freely forgives violent evil like that of the Assyrians? Evil should be punished, not forgiven.

Second, Jonah had definite perceptions about justice. Justice requires that people suffer the consequences of their actions. Nineveh deserved to be destroyed, not spared. Furthermore, justice is meaningless if those who live faithfully receive the same mercy as those who violently spurn God’s law. If evil escapes unpunished, what does that say about the value of obedience?

Third, Jonah had presuppositions concerning the nature of evil. Evil has a way of hardening people beyond hope. A people like the Assyrians, who had given themselves to violent evil, could surely not be moved to genuine repentance.

For all these reasons, when God asked Jonah if his anger was justified, he was convinced that it was. God was wrong; he was right. Grace was unmerited and should therefore not be lavished. Justice needed to be served. It was simply unfair for the godless Assyrians to escape justice.

What Jonah needed to learn, and what we frequently need to learn, is that justice cannot be evaded. Bruckner observes that the word translated “pity” in v. 11 (describing God’s pity for the Ninevites) literally means “to have tears in the eyes.” It describes a feeling of concern into which the concerned person enters. It is not a passive, unfeeling observation that something is not quite right; it is a deep, impassioned concern for the sufferer. God felt the concern he described. And the reason he felt it so deeply, I dare say, is because, ultimately, Christ would feel it on the cross.

Sin is never simply forgiven. Sin is always punished. Either the sinner pays the price for his or her sins, or Christ pays the price for the sinner’s sin. The Ninevites were forgiven because, looking forward in time, God saw that Christ would take their punishment on himself. Saul of Tarsus and Jeffrey Dahmer and anyone else that you may think is beyond forgiveness can experience forgiveness because Christ takes the punishment for their sin on himself. If Christ suffered and died in the place of a sinner, who are we to complain that that person doesn’t deserve forgiveness?

On Sunday, 30 September 1888, in the early hours of the morning, Elizabeth Stride and Catharine Eddowes became the third and fourth victims of Jack the Ripper in the east end of London. Later that morning, having heard news of the murders, Charles Spurgeon led his London congregation in prayer: “We hear startling new of abounding sin in this great city. Oh God, put an end to this, and grant that we may hear no more of such deeds. Let your gospel permeate the city, and let not monsters in human shape escape you.”

Spurgeon longed for justice and prayed that the unidentified serial killer would not escape. But he prayed at the same time for the gospel to permeate the city because he believed the power of the gospel to bring an end to such wickedness.

As you reflect on Jonah 4 this morning, ask God to help you remember that mercy always triumphs justice—not because justice is ignored in mercy, but because justice was exercised at Calvary for every sinner who will ever believe.