God’s Justice and Mercy Manifest in Christ

“We believe that God, who is perfectly merciful and just, sent his Son to assume that nature, in which the disobedience was committed, to make satisfaction in the same, 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 iniquities upon him; and poured forth his mercy and goodness on us, who were guilty and worthy of damnation, out of mere and perfect love, giving his Son unto death for us, and raising him for our justification, that through him we might obtain immortality and life eternal.” 

The Belgic Confession, Article XX

In the previous two articles the Creed has carefully and clearly developed the truths concerning the incarnation of Christ and the “union and distinction of the two natures in the person of Christ.” With this article the Creed begins its treatment of what Christ Who is very God and very man did for us. This article, God and His justice and mercy. The succeeding article speaks of this same atoning work from the viewpoint of Christ and the satisfaction which He made. 

Again one cannot help but be deeply impressed by how thoroughly Biblical our Creed is. This article especially in distinction from Article XXI, speaks of the atonement of Christ from the point of view of emphasizes that salvation is of the Lord. It is not the work of man in any sense of the word. It is God’s work in and through His Son, our Lord Jesus Christ. Note that emphasis. God sent His Son to assume our human nature, to make satisfaction, and to bear the punishment of sin. God therefore manifested His justice. God poured forth His mercy and goodness on us. God gave His Son unto death for us and God raised Him for our justification. And we were guilty and worthy of damnation, full of iniquities and disobedience. God saved us, and we contributed not one bit toward that salvation. And that is Scripture throughout. The Scriptures testify: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” (John 3:16) Or again: “But God commendeth his love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:8) Still more: “And all things are of God, who hath reconciled us to himself by Jesus Christ, and hath given to us the ministry of reconciliation; To wit, that God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto himself, not imputing their trespasses unto them; and hath committed unto us the word of reconciliation. Now then we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God did beseech you by us: we pray you in Christ’s stead, be ye reconciled to God. For he hath made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in him.” (II Corinthians 5:18-21) A beautiful summary of this great truth may be found in the first ten verses of Ephesians 2. There the Scriptures declare without equivocation that we were “dead in trespasses and sins.” We walked in times past according to the course of this world and according to the prince of the power of the air. We had our conversation (manner of life) among the children of disobedience and we walked in the lusts of our flesh, “fulfilling the desires of the flesh and of the mind.” This means that we were children of wrath even as the others. Then, against that dark background, comes the powerful contrast: “But God who is rich in mercy, for his great love wherewith he loved us, Even when we were dead in sins, hath quickened us together with Christ (by grace are ye saved;) And hath raised us up together and made us sit together in heavenly places in Christ Jesus . . . For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: Not of works lest any man should boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them.” (verses 4-10) Indeed the overwhelming testimony of Holy Writ is that salvation is exclusively the work of God and not man’s work. This testimony is beautifully reflected in our Confession

The article states that: God . . . sent his Son to assume that nature, in which the disobedience was committed, to make satisfaction in the same, and to bear the punishment of sin by his most bitter passion and death.” This truth that God sent His Son in our nature was discussed in detail in connection with the previous article on the union of the two natures. It is mentioned here because this is the basis for the cross of Christ as the revelation of God’s justice. Only because Christ assumed our human nature could He also suffer for us and make satisfaction of the justice of God for us. The Heidelberg Catechismmakes quite a point of this in Lord’s Day VI, Question and Answer 16: “Why must he be very man, and also perfectly righteous? Because the justice of God requires that the same human nature which hath sinned, should likewise make satisfaction for sin; and one, who is himself a sinner, cannot satisfy for others.” Man had sinned; man, therefore, must pay for that sin. Hence Christ had to assume our human nature in order to make that satisfaction of God’s justice for us. 

Thus the cross of Christ is a revelation of both the justice and the mercy of God. In that God laid our iniquities upon Christ, the cross is the revelation of His strictest justice. Before salvation could be accomplished, sin had to be removed. Our sins stood as an insurmountable barrier between us and God. God could not simply ignore those sins. He could not simply excuse or disregard those sins. They had to be removed, for God is a just God. And we could never remove those sins. We would only suffer eternally in hell as the just punishment for our sins. Thus God sent His Son to assume that human nature in which the disobedience was committed, to make satisfaction. In His justice God laid all our iniquities upon Christ. All this is very carefully developed by ourHeidelberg Catechism. The Catechism asks: “Will God suffer such disobedience and rebellion to go unpunished?” The answer is: “By no means; but is terribly displeased with our original as well as actual sins; and will punish them in his just judgment. . . .” (Q. and A. 10) The Catechism then asks: “Is not God then also merciful?” And the answer to this is: “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.” (Q. and A. 11) In the next Lord’s Day, the Catechismemphasizes that: “God will have his justice satisfied: and therefore we must make this full satisfaction, either by ourselves, or by another.” (A. 12) But theCatechism teaches that we only daily increase our debt and cannot make this satisfaction by ourselves. Neither is that possible for any mere creature to do for us. Hence we need a mediator and deliverer who: “. . .is very man, and perfectly righteous; and yet more powerful than all creatures; that is, one who is also very God.” (Q. and A. 15) And that mediator is Jesus Christ, the Son of God Who assumed our human nature and made satisfaction of the justice of God for us when God laid our iniquities upon Him. 

At the same time, however, that cross of Christ is also a beautiful manifestation of the mercy of God. As the Confession puts it: “God poured forth his mercy and goodness on us, who were guilty of damnation, out of mere and perfect love, giving his Son unto death for us. . .” This, that God gave His Son for us who were guilty and worthy of damnation, is the mercy of God. This must not be understood in the sense that God manifested His mercy in spite of His justice. The cross is the highest revelation of both mercy and justice. In the cross we see that the mercy of God is a just mercy and His justice is a merciful justice. The poet of Psalm 85 writes of that in these words : “Surely his salvation is nigh them that fear him; that glory may dwell in our land. Mercy and truth are met together; righteousness and peace have kissed each other. Truth shall spring out of the earth; and righteousness shall look down from heaven.” (verses 9-11) This, as the article says, was of mere and perfect love that God’s Son died for us, was raised for our justification, that through Him we might obtain immortality and life eternal. 

One question remains: How can a sinless one assume the guilt of a sinful man? Or, How can our guilt be reckoned justly to Christ? The only possible answer is that Christ was eternally appointed to be our Head, our representative. In Him we were chosen before the foundations of the world that we should be holy and without blame before Him. (Eph. 1:3ff.) Christ could therefore come in our place and suffer and die and be raised again on our behalf. “For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive.” (I Cor. 15:22) In this way, the deep way of sin and grace, the way of the cross, could God’s mercy and justice be revealed in the highest sense of the word.