Rev. Kleyn is pastor of Covenant of Grace Protestant Reformed Church in Spokane, Washington. Previous article in this series: October 15, 2009, p. 41.
Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day 4
Question 9. Doth not God then do injustice to man, by requiring from him in His law, that which he cannot perform?
Answer. Not at all; for God made man capable of performing it; but man, by the instigation of the devil, and his own willful disobedience, deprived himself and all his posterity of those divine gifts.
Question 10. Will God suffer such disobedience and rebellion to go unpunished?
Answer. By no means; but is terribly displeased with our original as well as actual sins; and will punish them in His just judgment temporally and eternally, as He hath declared, “Cursed is every one that continueth not in all things, which are written in the book of the law, to do them.”
Question 11. Is not God then also merciful?
Answer. God is indeed merciful, but also just; therefore His justice requires that sin which is committed against the most high majesty of God be also punished with extreme, that is, with everlasting punishment of body and soul.
Man will use every excuse he can to escape from the hands and wrath of the just God. He will argue with God’s terms of salvation first by claiming that he himself is good and can do good, and then, when his depravity is clear, he will argue that God is not fair in the way He deals with sinners. Man’s arguments demonstrate to us the power of the grace of God in salvation. By His grace God overpowers the sinful resistance of the will of man. In turn, we learn to see that salvation is all and only in Christ Jesus; of himself the sinner would never come to Christ.
A Just God
This Lord’s Day teaches us that God is just in His dealings with sinners. Justice is one of the attributes of God, describing an essential aspect of who God is. Something or someone that is just or righteous conforms to a law. The law is the standard, and justice is all that agrees with the law. A just lawyer or judge, a righteous citizen or child, is one whose actions, thoughts, and desires are within the bounds of the law. God’s law is the holiness and righteousness of His own being, which never changes and cannot be compromised. God does not need to go to a library or look up precedent to determine justice, but God is just, and He Himself sets the standard for all justice. God cannot be blamed or faulted for anything.
In Deuteronomy 32:4 Moses makes a beautiful confession of the justice of God. Every phrase in the verse expresses the justice of God. “He is the Rock, his work is perfect: for all his ways are judgment: a God of truth and without iniquity, just and right is he.” The beauty of this confession is that it comes in the context of God’s dealings with Israel in the wilderness and Moses being told that he must die, losing the privilege of leading Israel into Canaan. Can you say that God is just in all His dealings with you?
From Man’s Perspective
The law of God, both its external requirements summed in the Ten Commandments and the internal duty of love for God and the neighbor, is the summary of His justice, and God requires that we keep His commandments perfectly. This makes all of us want to say, “That’s not fair!” With a show of logic and much irritation we rise up against the justice of God. In the questions of this Lord’s Day there are three arguments the unconverted will present against God’s justice. You have heard these arguments before, and you will certainly recognize them in yourself.
Argument 1: It’s not fair for God to require of us what we are unable to do. This is like asking a pig to fly or a fish to walk, and then punishing them because they do not obey. How can God expect perfect obedience from us if we are born without the ability to keep His commandments or to love him?
Argument 2: God should not punish us for sin because we are not responsible for our sinful natures; we were born this way. And God must forgo punishing sinners because everybody is doing the same thing—we are all sinners and surely God can’t just punish everyone.
Argument 3: God is merciful, and so, surely, He will overlook sin. He’s a God of love and patience and forgiveness, so He won’t give to sinners what they deserve, will He?
There seems to be some logic to these arguments. Would we require a penniless man to give a million dollars? If everyone is doing something, isn’t it simply impossible to forbid it and punish for it? Isn’t this the way of justice in the real world? How could chastity and Sabbath observance possibly be enforced in a world where almost everyone pays no attention to these commandments? And doesn’t the Bible plainly teach that God is a God of love and mercy? But the problem with each and all of these arguments is that they begin from man’s perspective, and our theology must begin with God. Man cannot say, from his situation, “This is what I want God to be and what I want God to do.” That would be idolatry. We must let God be God. Paul says, “Let God be true, and every man a liar” (Rom. 3:4). In Job’s suffering, God told him to remember whom he was talking about before he complained against God (Job 38-39). “O man, who art thou that repliest against God?” (Rom. 9:20).
From God’s Perspective
The catechism carefully answers these objections from God’s perspective. In our theology and in all our thinking, we must begin with God.
God made man good and capable of keeping His law. That’s where we begin with the answer to the first objection. When God created man, man was able to keep God’s commandments. Further, it is entirely man’s own fault that he is no longer able to do what he was able to do in the beginning. Adam and Eve sinned willfully. God did not force them to sin. The devil cannot be blamed for their sin. Adam himself chose sin and the devil’s fellowship instead of life and friendship with God. And, like it or not, we were all there in Adam and Eve when they sinned. They were our representatives. When Adam and Eve were tested in the first temptation, the whole human race was on trial; and thus, when they fell, we all fell. We must be impressed with the unity of the human race. If you will have none of your place in Adam, you can have none of Christ (Rom. 5:18-19). For that reason, God can and may and does demand obedience of man to His law.
God’s requirement is not determined by man’s ability. Behind the first objection is the error that demand is determined by ability, that you can expect from a person only what that person is capable of doing. In human society, this may seem to make sense, but when we come to the gospel, it is a serious problem. This is the error of Arminian theology, which concludes that, because the gospel demands faith, therefore man must have the ability of his own free will to believe. But the gospel gives a demand that not one listener can fulfill, unless God works the willing and the doing by grace.
The answer to the second objection also begins with God. God cannot forgo His punishment of sin. Sin is an act of defiance and aggression against God, and God reacts in wrath because He is holy and jealous of His holiness. Sin is not a small thing, and God’s wrath is not a small thing. Psalm 7:11 says that God is “angry with the wicked every day.” God’s wrath is real, thorough, personal, and extreme. The punishment God gives, ultimately, is eternal punishment in hell but, also, His judgments are revealed in the earth. A sinful lifestyle, whether of drunkenness, anger, adultery, or some other life-dominating sin, brings devastating consequences in this life.
But isn’t God merciful? Yes, indeed God is merciful, but there is one thing God will never do because of His mercy. He will never compromise His justice and say, “I will just let sin go.” As great and unchanging as His mercy is, so great and unchanging is His justice. Here too, we begin with God. God’s love is not directed first toward the creature, but God’s love is first for Himself. There is nothing God can love more than His own name and honor. If He would love something at the expense of His name or honor, then He would no longer be God.
When we say God is merciful and a God of love, we must avoid common caricatures and misconceptions. Love is not leniency. Leniency is indicative of weakness. It is not mercy to overlook sin and leave one in it. Love is strong, sometimes stern and angry, and that is why God holds before us life and death, heaven and hell. The attributes of God are complementary. They are not to be played off against each other. The one, mercy, does not exclude the other, justice. When God is merciful, He is completely just.
From the Perspective of the Cross
God’s justice is displayed nowhere so clearly as in the death of His Son. God did not spare His own Son but made Him suffer for sin. Even when it was His own child, God would not pass over sin and forfeit justice. Christ had to pay the infinite price for sin in His bitter and shameful death. In the cross we see the infinite wrath and unchangeable justice of God. If you deny the justice of God, the death of Christ means nothing and has no value.
At the same time, and to the same measure, God shows in the cross His infinite mercy. Rather than making us suffer, God in mercy gives His Son in our place. “But God commendeth his love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8). He is indeed a merciful God!
Questions for Discussion
1. What do we mean by the justice of God? What is the standard for God’s justice?
2. How will and does God punish sinners? Why?
3. What objections will sinners raise against the justice and wrath of God?
4. Why is it important to begin, in our theological thinking, with God and His word?
5. Is it fair for God to demand of man what he is not able to perform?
6. Is it fair for God to send sinners to hell?
7. If God is merciful, why must the full penalty for sin nevertheless be paid?
8. Do you think it’s fair that God regards us as enemies right from our conception because of Adam’s sin? (Psalm 51:5, Romans 5:8-10, 18-19) Can you think of other examples in life, in which a person is regarded as an enemy because of the actions of another person?
9. If God were to overlook the sin of just one person, we would have to say God is unjust. What would you think of a high court judge who let someone off just because he liked him or was related to him? Would God do such a thing?
10. How does the death of Christ show both the justice and mercy of God?