Article 20 - The Justice and Mercy of God in Christ
THE JUSTICE AND MERCY OF GOD IN CHRIST
We believe that God, who is perfectly merciful and just, sent His Son to assume that nature in which disobedience had been committed, to make satisfaction in that same nature; and to bear the punishment of sin by His most bitter passion and death. God therefore manifested His justice against His Son when He laid our iniquity on Him, and poured out His goodness and mercy on us, who were guilty and worthy of damnation. Out of a most perfect love He gave His Son to die for us and He raised Him for our justification that through Him we might obtain immortality and life eternal.
SALVATION IS GOD’S WORK
After deBres confessed in Article 19 what the Scriptures teach concerning the person of Christ, he moved on in subsequent articles to make confession of the work of Christ (Articles 20-26). He begins His treatment of Christ’s work with God. “We believe that God... sent His Son to assume that nature in which disobedience had been committed.” The accent is on God because salvation is His initiative. Salvation did not begin with man, nor did it begin with the Son offering Himself to the Father. “...God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life” (John 3:16). And: “the Father has sent Me” (John 5:36). Salvation begins with God. See further Article 17.
GOD’S JUSTICE AND GOD’S MERCY
In the first sentence of this article, God is described as “perfectly merciful.” We accept such a description quite readily, for it certainly is mercy that God sent His Son to bring sinners from Satan’s side back to His side. We confessed that already in Article 17 when we spoke of “our gracious God”. We find it more difficult to accept that God is “perfectly just”. That God sent His Son to pay for our sin does not strike us as justice. It seems to us that there would have been greater justice on God’s part if He had told fallen man that his misery was his own fault, and he should now himself fix up what he broke, or suffer the consequences. As it is, the Lord God knew of our inability to repair what we had broken, and at the same time did not wish to have man suffer the eternal consequences of his fall. Hence He in mercy sent His Son to suffer the consequences of our fall in our place. To use the words of deBres, “God therefore manifested His justice against His Son when He laid our iniquity on Him.” What I the sinner deserved, God poured onto Christ.
Perhaps we say: if God is going to punish His Son in order to spare us, why does He not directly spare us – without punishing His Son? God could not leave our sin unpunished because God is always faithful to His Word. Already in Paradise the Lord had told Adam that “in the day that you eat of [the forbidden tree] you will surely die” (Genesis 2:17). Since Adam transgressed God’s command, God’s promise had to be carried out. God kept His Word by pouring out His justice on the Second Adam. In the words of Lord’s Day 4, Q & A 11: “His justice requires that sin committed against the most high majesty of God also be punished with the most severe, that is, with everlasting, punishment of body and soul.” As many (all mankind) fell from God’s grace through the transgression of the First Adam, so many (the elect) tasted the justice and the mercy of God through the judgment poured out on the Second Adam.
As a just God, then, God did not leave sin unpunished. At the same time God displayed His infinite mercy in that He poured on Another the wrath we deserved. This is mercy, that those “who were guilty and worthy of damnation” should receive goodness and forgiveness instead. Christ was sent to the cross to bear the wrath of God against my sin, and the result is that my sins are paid for; God is angry with me no longer! Christ stood in the place of the sinner, bore the wrath of God for us so that the sinner is set free: that is God’s mercy.
The one characteristic of God cannot be played off against the other. It is incorrect to say that God’s love cancels out His wrath, or that God’s justice cancels out His mercy. Both God’s justice and His mercy need to receive full attention. It is because God is just that His wrath had to be poured out, and it is because God is merciful that His wrath was not poured out on all sinners, but on Christ in place of sinners. It is the two together that point up Who my God really is.
The God of the Old Testament is often understood as the God of anger, whereas the God of the New Testament is perceived as the God of love. This is incorrect. God demonstrated His justice and His mercy equally in Genesis 3 when He sent man out of Paradise (justice) and at the same time came with the protevangel (mercy). Equally, God in the New Testament displayed His mercy to us by sending Christ to earth (Luke 2) and His justice by sending Christ to the cross (Luke 23). In His mercy God is just and in His justice God is merciful.
Points for Discussion:
- Explain why it was necessary that salvation begin with God instead of with man.
- How did salvation begin with God? That is, what did God do?
- Explain how God is both merciful and just at the same time. Do the two not contradict?
- What do you think of the distinction that the God of the Old Testament is a God of wrath, and the God of the New Testament a God of love?
- When you speak with others about Scripture, would you speak first of God’s justice or of His mercy?