Mercy and Justice (HC 11)

heiliggeist200.jpg 11. Is then God not also merciful?

God is indeed merciful,1 but He is likewise just;2 His justice therefore requires that sin which is committed against the most high Majesty of God, be also punished with extreme, that is, with everlasting punishment both of body and soul.

1 Exod 34:6,7. 2 Exod 20:5. Ps 5:5,6. 2 Cor 6:14-16. * Revelation 14:11.

When faced with the question of the divine wrath, the catechism asks the same question we do: my, that seems harsh. What about mercy? It’s funny how sinners, who so often sit in judgment over God and man, suddenly become interested in mercy when faced with relentless justice.

To answer the question, the catechism turns to the divine attributes. This is an important move in two ways. First, it says something about how Reformed theology works and how we understand Scripture. God has a nature. There are things that are true of God in perpetuity. We can say true things about God that were true a million years ago, that are true today, and that shall be true forever. Unlike the god of early modernity (who is either wholly hidden from us or wholly identified with the world) and unlike the god of late modernity (who is the creation of our subjectivity, he/she/it is what we perceive, wish, hope him/her/it to be), the God of Scripture simply is. The god of open theism might be, if we’ll cooperate. The god of process theism is becoming. The god of late modernity is contingent. In contrast to the Reformed faith, which denies that God has “parts or passions,” the god of late modernit suffers (patior, to suffer). The god of late modernity, of our time, is complex. He/she/it is never anything, never fully realized, and always contingent. He/she/it needs us. The god of late modernity is more like Woody Allen than he/she/it is like the Yahweh of holy Scripture.

The Reformed faith is neither early modern (rationalist or empiricist) nor late modern (subjectivist). The Reformed faith seeks to be biblical and Scripture does reveal God to be merciful to sinners. Exodus 2);6 describes him as “”Showing mercy to a thousand generations” (Ex 20:6). Scripture says that his name (i.e. who he is) is “compassionate, gracious, slow to Anger…” (Ex 34:6-7). God does relent from his judgments and justice, but that relenting, that restraint of wrath, that not giving to the unjust what they deserve, is premised on the satisfaction of justice. Where that is not present, mercy is not possible. However it may seem to us, mercy is not arbitrary because the divine justice is not arbitrary, nor are they grounded in something extrinsic to God. This is the great mistake of all rationalist theologies. They always want to try to save God from the charge of being arbitrary by showing how God’s acts can be justified by some standard outside of God. That seems satisfactory until we realize that if God must give account to some univocal standard of justice that binds him and us, then that standard must be God! The cost of rescuing God from the charge of being arbitrary is to lose God himself.

No, the standard to which God answers is himself, his own nature. He never acts contrary to it and he always acts according to it. It’s true that we don’t know God’s justice exhaustively, because we don’t know God exhaustively. We only know him as he reveals himself to us. We can correlate what he does with what he has revealed to us, but when our correlation fails, we must submit to God. We can and may never stand in judgment over God because such an attempt presumes that we know more about God than he knows about himself. Just to say these words shows how foolish such thinking is.

God is his divine attributes. He is just and he is merciful. His justice is merciful and his mercy is just. They meet perfectly in him. Yes, God is merciful, but he is equally just. Scripture says, “I am a jealous God…” (Ex 20:5). “He does not leave the guilty unpunished…” (Ex 34:7). In other words, God’s definition of justice is himself. We may live in a subjectivist time but God does not care. He did not submit to the demands of the Enlightenment that he justify himself and he won’t submit to the demands of the post-Enlightenment that he justify himself. No, we must be justified by him. God is just and the justifier.

God is merciful, but his mercy is premised on justice. His justice must be satisfied. Outside of that satisfaction there is no mercy. God is just. He has provided that that satisfaction of his justice. God is merciful; he has provided that satisfaction of his justice. You did not provide it.

Listen to me Christian: He could have demanded that you provide it. He did not. He provided satisfaction for his justice. Christ Jesus satisfied the justice of God. He did righteousness, he loved God and neighbor, he walked humbly with his God. We did not. He obeyed for us. His obedience is imputed to all who trust in him and in his finished work for sinners.

Listen to me you unbelievers. God is just. He will not be mocked. If you will not trust in Jesus the satisfier of God justice, then you must satisfy the justice of God yourself. Is it unjust? Did God sin? Did God rebel? Was it God or you who cursed your neighbor this morning (on the freeway)? Was it God or you who committed adultery (with your eyes and heart)? Was it God or you who stole from the cash register? Was it God or was it you who coveted your neighbor’s new car? That’s what I thought. God gave you life, he gave you breath. Despite your sin and rebellion he has provided for you generously and how do you thank him? By demanding that he do more, that he meet your standards!

In our age we are quick to dispense with the justice of God because it does not fit our paradigm. “It’s all good” we say. No, it isn’t all good. We’re not all good. God is good and we are not and therein lies the problem. “Dude, lighten up!” That’s what they said as the rain began to fall. They mocked Noah, right up to the time that they couldn’t swim any longer, as the water began to cause the Ark to float. Truth be told they, like we, probably shook their fist at God to the last, cursing him for not meeting their standard of justice even as he was in the act of holding them to his. Denying reality to the last.

    Post authored by:

  • R. Scott Clark
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    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

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