(A Series of Lessons in the 37 Articles of The Confession of Faith, A Reformed Creed Usually Called The Belgic Confession.)
LESSON 17 – ARTICLE XX
GOD HAS MANIFESTED HIS JUSTICE AND MERCY 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 all 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.
2 Corinthians 5:20, 21; Romans 3:25, 26 (Christ was made to be sin in our behalf.)
John 3:16 (God’s amazing love.)
Galatians 3:13 (Romans 4:25; Romans 8:3; Isaiah 53 (God laid on Jesus Christ all our sins.)
Romans 5:20 (God’s overflowing mercy overcomes the power of sin.)
John 10:17, 18 (Christ’s obedience.)
1. How can we summarize the various elements in this twentieth article of our Confession of Faith?
In this article we notice the following principal thoughts, which we will discuss consecutively: First, God has for our salvation sent his Son into the world; second, God has revealed his justice against his Son; third, God has poured forth his mercy over us; fourth, Christ has wrought reconciliation for his peopIe through his payment for their sins.
2. Is it true that God sent his Son into the world “just in order to save you?”
By means of the birth and obedience of Jesus Christ God has realized salvation for all who believe. However, we must not think that the cause or the basis for the coming of Christ into our world and nature is to be found in us. You will remember that the angels sang this song at the time of the birth of Jesus: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among men in whom he is well pleased” (Luke 2:14).
The truth of the matter is that God took reasons out of himself as the cause and basis for the Incarnation. In the Counsel of Peace God had pre-determined every feature of redemption’s program. The Father appointed the Son, the Son declared himself ready to do the will of the Father, and the Holy Spirit took upon himself the task of providing the Son with a body. Not only so, but in the election God wrote the names of his own in the Book of Life, so that his plan included not only the Son as Savior, but also those whom he came to save.
It is important, therefore, to confess here that “God, who is perfectly merciful and just, sent his Son” upon his own divine initiative.
3. What was God’s purpose in sending his Son as a Savior?
The great purpose which God always seeks is the glory of his own blessed Name! Therefore the angels sang so properly: “Glory to God!” Even sin here cooperates to magnify God’s glory. For in the Incarnation the virtues of the ever-glorious God are shown even more clearly as he shows in the coming of Christ his justice and mercy. God is unchangeable, but the revelation of his glory through the Incarnation comes to a richer development.
4. But can God be both just and merciful at the same time?
Yes, for in God these two virtues do not conflict with one another. In God all his virtues are one. There is no disharmony between them, and there is no subordination of one to the other. Some have sought to establish that in God justice is indeed present but is inferior to his love. This is not the case.
5. Can you offer any explanation for the possibility of these seemingly contradictory virtues in God?
Perhaps an illustration will help. Electricity can be used to move the heaviest trains long distances over all types of terrain. But if anyone unprotected contacts this current directly he is likely to be killed. The current that kills is the same current which furnishes the benefits of light and locomotive power. If it could not kill it could not benefit either. So also God’s justice and mercy are one. God’s mercy provides light and redemption, and his justice punishes and kills.
6. Is there any particular movement in our day which would minimize God’s justice at the expense of his mercy?
Yes, indeed, those we popularly call modernists are very much interested in eliminating God as a God of justice and righteousness. It is their theory that Jesus died as a martyr to demonstrate the error of the Old Testament representation of God as a God of judgment. Actually, they maintain, God loves all men indiscriminately without regard for justice or right. The truth, however, is that God is so perfectly holy and just that he punishes sin in the person of his only begotten Son rather than to leave it unpunished, and he is so perfectly merciful that he has given his Son in order that everyone who believeth in him may have everlasting life.
7. What is the occasion for Christ’s coming?
Christ came because men fell into sin through the first disobedience of Adam and Eve in Paradise. Therefore his coming results in the reconciliation of men as sinners to God. Sometimes it is represented as if Christ came to bridge the gap between God and man as such, between time and eternity, between Creator and creature, between the divine and the human. This is a very deceitful doctrine, and must be guarded against strenuously! Christ, says this article, “assumed that nature in which the disobedience was committed, to make satisfaction in the same.” Christ came for sinners, not to elevate them to divinity, but to restore them into living fellowship with God as Covenant-keeping creatures.
8. How did God righteously lay upon Christ all our sins?
This article of our Confession states that Christ made satisfaction for our sins, bearing the “punishment of sin by his most bitter passion and death. God therefore manifested his justice against his Son when he laid out iniquities upon him…” Notice the following:
a. The suffering and death of Christ is a display of God’s justice. God, the fountain of all justice, never acts out of harmony with this virtue, but delights in manifesting it as one of the many glories of his being.
b. Christ was made to be sin for us when God, the Judge of heaven and earth, placed him in the state of the guilty. Our state in distinction from our condition is our relationship to God’s law, before which we are either guilty or not guilty. It is obvious that one may well be in a most miserable condition, and yet actually be in the state of righteousness. (This is frequently the case with God’s children in this life!) So reversely, God placed Christ in our position, and there, as if he were guilty, he bore the wrath of God and suffered “his most bitter passion and death.”
c. Christ thus became for us a sacrifice through which satisfaction was accomplished. Think of it! While we were yet sinners Christ died for us!
9. How did God manifest his mercy towards us?
This will become very plain if we consider the full force of the description of ourselves which the Confession here offers. It declares that we “were guilty and worthy of damnation.” To such damn-worthy sinners God “poured forth” his mercy and goodness when he gave Christ his Son to die for us. This is realized through that grace which super-abounds unto forgiveness and salvation for all who believe, Romans 5:20.
10. What is the significance of the fact that God raised Jesus from the dead?
Its significance is three-fold:
a. For our justification: Our justification is the cause for Christ’s resurrection. God reckoned the sacrifice to be sufficient for the payment of our sins, and therefore he raised his Son from the dead. By means of the resurrection of Christ the Father declares that the bill is paid!
b. For our sanctification: We are raised with him to newness of life, which means that as Christians we ought to be characterized by a strong desire to bear fruit in terms of good works.
c. For our glorification: “That through him we might obtain immortality and life eternal” is the closing assertion of this article, outside of Christ is death and eternal punishment. Through Christ we obtain everlasting life. “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who according to his great mercy begat us again unto a living hope by the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, unto an inheritance incorruptible, and undefiled, and that fadeth not away, reserved in heaven for you, who by the power of God are guarded through faith unto a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.” (I Peter 1:3-5).
11. Could there possibly be reconciliation without satisfaction?
Not at all! Let us never forget that Christ’s suffering and death was a reconciliation based upon full payment for our guilt. Fact is that the extent and the enormity of this debt is so great that we cannot began to comprehend it. Our present national debt (U.S.A.) is as nothing to what we owed God because of our sins! The Christ of the Scriptures is always the Mediator whose saving work involved the complete satisfaction for our sins, praise God!
12. Will all men be saved?
This is a question which men naturally love to answer in the affirmative. It is quite surprising to discover how many heretical groups teach that somehow, somewhere all men (or by far the greatest share), and even all devils will yet be delivered from hell. It is a case of the “wish being father to the thought,” of course. The truth is, however, that there is an eternal punishment as well as eternal life, and that all who will not believe in Christ shall not see life!
13. Is it true that Christ merely offers the chance of salvation to all who believe?
There are three wrong ideas in connection with this question, which, in answer to it, we shall outline:
a. It is not true that Christ died for all men. Those who hold to this theory say that Christ came for all men, head for head, and that he actually realized satisfaction for each one. It must be appropriated by each one personally, which will not eventuate, and therefore some are lost. This is in disagreement with God’s Word, which declares that the Good Shepherd laid down his life for his sheep. Christ died only for the elect. Therefore Christ himself prayed: “I pray not for the world, but for those whom thou hast given me.” (John 17:9b).
b. It is not true that Christ has achieved only the possibility of salvation. According to this theory every man has or shall have, perhaps in some other world, a chance to accept Christ as Savior. Accepting this chance will mean salvation for him. Christ throws the rope to the storm-tossed ship, but the crew must fasten it to the ship, if they please, while Christ stands helplessly outside. On the contrary, Christ’s mediatorial, saving work is a full reality, a complete accomplishment. “He shall save his people from their sins.” So spake the angel, and so it is! (Cf. Matthew 1:21)
c. It is not true that we must make the possibility of salvation actual by our effort. Christ has not merely indicated the way according to which we can work out our own salvation in our own strength. Actually it is true that we live only by grace. “Without me ye can do nothing,” said the Lord.
14. For whom is the saving work of Christ intended?
a. It is sufficient for all, that is, its value is unlimited. (Cf. Canons of Dart, II, 3). The fact that all are not saved is not because Christ’s sacrifice was limited in value to just a relatively few.
b. It is designed for the elect. In the words of the Canons of Dort, “For this was the sovereign counsel and most gracious will and purpose of God the Father that the quickening and saving efficacy of the most precious death of his Son should extend to all the elect, for bestowing upon them alone the gift of justifying faith, thereby to bring them infallibly to salvation…” (II, 8a).