For those who might have recently started reading this blog, one of the goals for 2017 has been to walk through one of Faith Church’s confessions of belief — the Belgic Confession — and explain what each of the 37 articles are saying and why they are important, so important the author of this confession died for his faith. In May, we are now over halfway through this confession, and we now turn to article 20.
Mercy and justice are often pitted against each other, in that a person either is just and gives someone what he or she deserves or is merciful and does not give someone what he or she deserves. We can think of a parent who either punishes the child for his or her disobedience or is merciful and lets it go. While we think that we have to choose between mercy and justice, we read in the Belgic Confession that we have a God is both merciful and just in his actions and in particular in the work of Jesus Christ. Article 20 of the confession shows this, as it begins: “We believe that God—who is perfectly merciful and also very just—sent the Son to assume the nature in which the disobedience had been committed, in order to bear in it the punishment of sin by his most bitter passion and death.” God is not just merciful and just, but he is “perfectly merciful and also very just.”
The concepts of justice and mercy imply that there is a problem, that someone has done something wrong, so this part of the confession builds upon the discussion of the Fall of all humankind into sin through the first sin and its effects on all humans since then. But rather than God’s choice being between justice – punishing body and soul – and mercy – just letting it go – he is both “perfectly” merciful and “very” just. This happens because Jesus Christ takes on the exact nature (body and soul, as the previous articles discussed) of sinful humans and takes the punishment that sinners deserve (but he does not deserve), which is how he makes “satisfaction” for them. What this reminds us of is that while Jesus did live a perfect life, this life he lived is not just about giving an example of the way that we should live – that is certainly part of it, just as he teaches us how to follow God – but that his life was setting up his death, in which he took punishment. No amount of work that we could do could overcome the sin – and if it could, then Jesus died for nothing – but he came to bring justice, so that the punishment would fall on a human body and soul. He was the spotless lamb seen in the Old Testament sacrificial system, but only a spotless human and not a spotless animal could take the place of humans.
The confession notes that fact, as it continues, “So God made known his justice toward his Son, who was charged with our sin, and he poured out his goodness and mercy on us, who are guilty and worthy of damnation, giving to us his Son to die.” Jesus experiences the justice (sin is punished), and we experience the mercy and goodness of God in that Jesus died for us to enable us to have life, as we the confession continues: “by a most perfect love, and raising him to life for our justification, in order that by him we might have immortality and eternal life.” God is merciful and actually gracious in giving us life eternal because of a great exchange that happens, that Jesus takes our sin and we then receive his righteousness, which is what causes us to have immortality and eternal life. It is not just that Jesus takes our punishment so now we are off the hook and have the chance to earn our salvation, as we are unable to work our way into God’s favor. How that works is unfolded in the next few articles of the confession, but here we see and celebrate that God is both just and merciful, punishing sin and also bringing sinners back into relationship with him.
The fact that God is both just and merciful should be good news. God’s justice is good news since we live in a sinful world; we want to see justice served when we see evil in the world. But when we look at our own lives, we don’t want justice, we want mercy — which we get in Jesus Christ. The cross shows us that God will punish sin, but it gives sinners a chance at mercy because God has put the punishment on Jesus. Praise be the just and merciful God!
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