12. Since then by the righteous judgment of God we deserve temporal and eternal punishment, how may we escape this punishment and be again received into favor?
God wills that His justice be satisfied;1 therefore we must make full satisfaction to the same, either by ourselves or by another.2
1 Exodus 20:5. Exodus 23:7. 1 Romans 8:3,4.
With this question we begin considering the second part of the catechism or the “grace” section of “guilt, grace, and gratitude.”
One of the great misconceptions about the Augustinian doctrine of divine sovereignty, which was re-stated by the Protestant Reformers and which came to expression in the Reformed confessions, is that it makes God arbitrary or capricious.
Without reflection or if we start from the wrong place, the acts of God might seem arbitrary. After all, during the fires, one house was taken and one was left behind. It’s not evident that there is any way to say that this house was taken but that one was left because of anything intrinsic to each house. It’s a mystery of providence. Of course folk frequently and falsely set up cause and effect relations to explain providence but Jesus isn’t having any of it (see John 9).
This fact, however, does not mean that we cannot say anything about God’s justice nor does it mean that God is really capricious. The charge that the God of Scripture is capricious rests ultimately on the assumption that unless we can explain his actions then we may sit in judgment upon them and him. In other words, the charge rests upon rationalism. Of course we cannot explain all of God’s acts and we cannot explain fully any of them! His ways are are higher than our ways. His thoughts are not our thoughts. If he did explain himself fully it would consume us. We are not capable of understanding.
If we consider that God always acts according to his nature, then he cannot be said to be arbitrary, especially if we concede that God’s understanding of his justice transcends our ability to comprehend it. That is a great difference between the triune God of Holy Scripture revealed in Christ Jesus and Allah or fate. The god of Islam really is capricious. He may forgive or he may not. No one can know. Allah cannot be known. He is utterly hidden. Indeed, he isn’t even really personal. The alleged identity of Yahweh and Allah is a great myth of liberalism and universalism. Such a claim is an insult both to Christianity and to Islam.
The God of Scripture is, in himself, hidden from us but he also reveals himself to us and what he reveals to us is true. There is a great divide between the Creator and the creature. We cannot know things as God knows them and we cannot know God as he knows himself, but we can know God because he has come to us and made himself known. He has revealed himself in creation and in redemption and chiefly in his Son, the Word: Jesus the Messiah.
We can correlate God’s promises to his saving acts in redemptive history. We can and must count him faithful to fulfill his law and his promises. He threatens judgment for sin. He threatens death for sin and he fulfills that curse (Gen 2:17; Exod 20:5). The whole history of the Israelite holy war against Canaan is the history of God’s righteous judgment upon unbelief and sin. He says: “…I will not acquit the guilty” (Exod 23:7). Every human being is personally obligated to produce perfect righteousness before God (Ex 34:7; Ez 18.4,20; 2 Thess 1:8-10; Gal 3:10). Unlike Allah, the God who is, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, is not arbitrary. He cannot contradict himself. He cannot be what he is not. He cannot do what is contrary to his nature and his nature is just. The universal testimony of Scripture is that God’s righteousness must be satisfied.
Scripture also testifies, however, that God is gracious and merciful. He is merciful in that he does not give to all sinners what they deserve: hell (thanks to Danny Hyde for repeatedly pointing this out on Sunday mornings!) and he is gracious in that he gives to sinners what they cannot earn, his favor and out of his de-merited favor he himself supplies the righteousness required by his justice. I’m grateful to the person at the recent Gospel-Driven Conference at Ponte Vedra PCA who pointed out after one of the sessions that, in Ezek 16:63, Yahweh Elohim promises that he himself will atone for the sins of his people. Of course we remember the scene in Genesis 15 when Yahweh himself passes between the pieces, taking upon himself the obligation to fulfill the promise and to suffer the penalty of violation of the covenant.
This is the difference between biblical religion and all other religions. Only the God of Scripture promises to save his people by fulfilling the obligations of his law for them. All other faiths set up systems whereby we must do for ourselves or, as in the case of Rabbinic and Christian moralism, God gives grace so that we can do so ourselves.
In the biblical faith, however, God meets the terms of his righteousness for us. This is where grace and righteousness meet: in Christ. For us he became both righteous law-keeper (Second/Last Adam) and the Mediator of gracious, free salvation sola fide to and for all those for whom he came, whom the Father gave to him from all eternity.
More next time