Part Two, Of Man’s Redemption, Lord’s Day 4, Chapter 3: The Justice of God’s Mercy

Is not God then also merciful? In this third and last question of Lord’s day IV is expressed the final attempt on the part of sinful man to find a way out of his misery without satisfaction and without repentance, to change the living God so as to make it quite safe to sin before His face. The first attempt involved an attack on the right of God to demand of the sinner that which he cannot perform. The second denied God’s punitive justice. And in this last question the sinful mind makes the foolish attempt to divide and to divorce from one another the very virtues of God, particularly those of His justice and mercy, and to introduce a conflict between them, such a conflict that God’s mercy induces Him to deny His justice. The question is closely related to the preceding one, and implies an objection to the answer our Catechism gave to it. God will not leave sin unpunished. His justice demands punishment. He is filled with wrath against all our sin, original and actual. He curses all that do not keep His good commandments. And He punishes them with temporal as well as with eternal punishment. Such is the terrible wrath of God. But now comes the question: is not God then also merciful? The question contains an objection to the conception of God presented in answer to the tenth question. And how common an objection it is! How frequently one meets with it in actual life! The objector that raises this question really means to say that if you insist that God is always filled with wrath against the sinner, and that He punishes sin in time and eternity, your conception of God is that of a cruel tyrant, who knows of no mercy, a Shylock, that wants his pound of flesh! This indictment is brought against those who deny that God can be gracious at all to the sinner outside of Christ, as well as against them that maintain the truth of eternal punishment in hell. God’s mercy militates against His justice, and prevents Him from executing His righteous wrath upon the head of the sinner!

However, the Catechism denies the existence of such a conflict in God. It readily grants that God is merciful. But it denies that this mercy of God eliminates the execution of His justice and righteous wrath.

It insists that the blessed mercy of God can reach the creature only through the channels of His justice. ”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.”

God’s justice is that virtue according to which He maintains Himself as the only Good as the sovereign Governor of the universe. God is good. He is a light, and there is no darkness in Him at all. He is the implication of all infinite perfections. And as the infinitely perfect One He reveals Himself in His relation to, and His dealings with the moral creature. He will be glorified. For He made all things for His own name’s sake, even the wicked unto the day of evil. He seeks His own glory in the righteous and in the wicked both. And this means that it is His will that all the moral creatures shall know Him and acknowledge Him as the infinitely perfect Sovereign of heaven and earth, for God’s glory is the radiation of His divine perfection. The creature must confess that God is God, that He is the absolute Lord, and that He is the perfection of goodness. Hence, God always reveals Himself to the moral creature as the perfect sovereign of heaven and earth. He does so by rewarding the good with good, the evil with evil. From this fundamental rule of His government God never departs. From the implications of this rule no creature can ever escape, not even for a moment. God, who seeks His own glory and would have the creature know that He is infinite perfection, blesses the righteous. He makes the good happy in his goodness, in order that he may taste and acknowledge that the Lord is good. And He makes the evil one miserable. He curses him in the way of his wickedness, in order that the wicked, too, may experience and confess that He is good. “With the merciful thou wilt shew thyself merciful; with an upright man thou wilt shew thyself upright; with the pure thou wilt shew thyself pure, and with the froward thou wilt shew thyself froward. For thou wilt save the afflicted people; but wilt bring down high looks” (Ps. 18:25-27). And the Spirit teaches us to pray: “Do good, O Lord, unto those that be good, and to them that are upright in their hearts and assures us: “As for such as turn aside unto their crooked ways, the Lord shall lead them forth with the workers of iniquity: but peace shall be upon Israel” (Ps. 125:4, 5). This, then, is the justice of God. According to it, He so governs the universe that He becomes known to all His moral creatures as the absolutely good Lord, by rewarding the good with good, the evil with evil.

God’s mercy, too, is His infinite goodness. But mercy considers this goodness of God from the viewpoint that He is the infinitely blessed one. With God there is life and light, fullness of joy and gladness; there are pleasures forevermore at His right hand. And even as He is blessed in Himself, and that, too, as the infinitely perfect one, so He is the sole fount of all blessing, of all life and joy and delight, for all His creatures. For the will to glorify Himself implies that He purposes to reveal Himself as the eternally blessed God. That God is merciful, therefore, signifies the will and desire in God to make the creature share in His own divine blessedness. If, therefore, that creature is in depths of misery, the mercy of God becomes revealed in the divine act of deliverance. In relation to the creature, therefore, the mercy of God is that divine virtue according to which He delivers the creature from all misery and fills him with life and joy.

Now, these two perfections in God are often presented as if they are or might be in conflict with each other. This is the case, according to this conception, as soon as God’s mercy and justice are applied to the sinner. Then God confronts a dilemma. According to the justice of God, He must make the sinner miserable; according to His mercy, however, He desires to deliver him from all misery and to fill him with blessedness. If, therefore, God will exercise His justice, He cannot show His mercy to the sinner. And, on the other hand, if He would reveal His mercy, He cannot execute His justice. Now, according to the conception that is implied in this eleventh question of the Catechism, God’s mercy prevails against His justice. This is in the very nature of mercy, not only among men, but also in God. A just mercy is a contradiction in terms. If a criminal receives mercy from the court, justice is set aside in his case. Justice is overruled; mercy prevails; the criminal is pardoned. The same, according to this view, must be true of God, if He is merciful. He is just, to be sure, and according to this virtue He strikes the sinner with the curse in His wrath. But He is also merciful. And in His mercy it is impossible that He can cause suffering and misery to the creature, even though he be worthy of punishment. He yearns for the happiness of the sinner. The result is that He denies His justice, and blesses the sinner even in his sin and guilt. By some this is applied consistently: without satisfaction of His justice, God bestows upon the sinner eternal life and bliss. By others this same error is applied only to this temporal life and existence: without any basis of righteousness God is gracious to and blesses the sinner in His common mercy.

The fundamental error of this conception is apparent: it denies the oneness of God, and presupposes a conflict between the virtues of truth, faithfulness, righteousness, holiness, and justice, on the one hand, and those of love, grace and mercy on the other. Mercy and justice are separated. They are presented as opposed to each other. But this whole conception is false. God is one. It is true, He is revealed to us in many perfections, but all these divine attributes are one in God. We may not separate them, even though they can be distinguished. God is His attributes. His mercy is His justice, and His justice is His mercy. And therefore, His mercy is always a just and righteous mercy; and His justice is always merciful. It is this truth that is denied by the objector that is introduced to us in the eleventh question of the Catechism. And this denial is a very fundamental error, that vitiates all the theology and the whole conception of life of those that present it as the truth. We must emphasize, therefore, that God is one, and that all His attributes are one in Him. The divine virtue of simplicity must be maintained.

If this is clearly understood, it will at once be recognized that unjust mercy is fundamentally no mercy, and that the latter, far from overruling and prevailing against mercy, cannot even be bestowed upon the sinner, except in the way of and with strictest maintenance of justice. This is even true in human life. Suppose that a child has grievously sinned, and that the parent should inflict a severe punishment upon him. However, he cannot bear the very thought of seeing his child suffer, and so he refrains from punishing him. Is the motive on the part of the parent for not chastising the child to be considered mercy? Of course not. It is merely a sinful weakness. And instead of blessing the child and bestowing a good upon him, it hardens him in his sin. Or suppose that a judge, instead of maintaining law and justice, pardons the criminal that is indicted in his court. Is that judge motivated by mercy or by a “love of humanity” in thus pardoning the criminal, and does he really bestow a blessing upon that criminal? Far from it. Various reasons may motivate the action of the judge, but mercy is not one of them; justice is violated; the criminal is strengthened in his crime; and crime is encouraged in the land. Or again, suppose that a certain governor of a state or country would habitually pardon all criminals in his domain. Would such a governor gain for himself the reputation of being a very merciful and benign sovereign? And would, under his government, even the good be blessed? The answer is evident. His very subjects would condemn such an application of human weakness and gross injustice in the name of mercy. In an infinitely higher sense of the word this is true of God in relation to the sinner. In fact, that all the attempts of men to separate justice from mercy in human life are doomed to failure, has its deepest cause in the fact that these two virtues can never be separated in God. Mercy cannot be bestowed upon the wicked as such. It cannot bless the sinner except on the basis of justice. The guilty sinner cannot be blessed. It is impossible that he should ever be made happy in his sin. Even if he should be taken to heaven, suppose this were possible, there he would be most miserable of all. The wicked would flee far from heaven, because God’s presence is there. And, therefore, the question: “Is not God then also merciful?” may in general be answered as follows: “Indeed He is; but this already implies that He is just, for an unjust mercy is fundamentally a contradiction in terms.”

This justice, according to the Heidelberg Catechism, “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.” Justice requires punishment. The wicked is evil, and because God is good and must be known and acknowledged as such, the ethically evil must suffer evil, misery, death. Never may the sinner receive the impression that God blesses him in his sin. Nowhere, in all the wide universe, may the sinner find a place where he can stand and claim that He found rest and peace and life and joy. Not for a moment may he so experience God’s government that he can deny that God is good, righteous, holy, and true, too pure of eyes to behold sin. On the contrary, he must taste, even in his way of sin, that God is good; and this he must confess. Hence, he must be made miserable, unspeakably wretched. Punishment must be inflicted upon Him. Such is the requirement of the justice of God. He rewards the good with good, the evil with evil; and that for His own name’s sake!

And this punishment must be commensurate with the evil committed. The evil inflicted as punishment upon the sinner must be equivalent to the greatness of the sin. This is the underlying principle of the statement of the Catechism here 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.” The greatness of sin is not measured by the position and worth of him that commits it, but by the majesty and goodness and sovereignty of Him against whom sin is committed. It is so among men. It makes a world of difference whether one offends against his fellowman on the street or in the shop, or whether his offense is directed at the chief magistrate of the land, be he president or emperor. But sin is committed against God. And God is GOD! He is infinite in majesty and glory, the sole good and overflowing fountain of good. To sin against Him is to trample infinite majesty and sovereignty under foot. To clench the fist in His face and violate His commandment, is to rise in rebellion against the everlasting Lord of heaven and earth. He is Lord in all the universe; He is Lord in time and in eternity. Always and everywhere and for ever we have to do with Him. Never can we escape Him. There is, therefore, no rest for the sinner. Offense against the infinite majesty of God, than Who there is no other sovereign, must be punished everywhere and for ever. Extreme, that is, everlasting punishment and that, too, in body and soul, is required by the justice of God!

There is no way out, therefore, as far as man is concerned. Salvation is of the Lord. It is not, it cannot be of man. God is indeed merciful. And it is His everlasting good pleasure that His mercy should be revealed in all the fullness of its glory, even through sin. He does, indeed, lift the sinner from his misery, and reveals the abundance of His mercy by exalting him to the glory of everlasting, heavenly bliss in His tabernacle. And His mercy is revealed, too, as a just mercy. For God revealed His mercy in Christ, His own Christ, in whom His justice and mercy with relation to the guilty and miserable sinner shine forth in most blessed harmony and sweetest accord. And when that mercy of God revealed in the cross and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ is bestowed upon the sinner, he acknowledges by faith that God is abundantly merciful, but also that His mercy is absolutely just!