I’ve been looking at the Heidelberg Catechism for the past week or so for a paper I’m writing. For those that don’t know, it’s an old reformed catechism that takes the form of question and answer. Anyways, here’s question 11 (and answer):
Is not God then also merciful?
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.
Here I find something I was taught in church as a child. That God is merciful, yes, but he is also just. And, because he is completely just his mercy is bound by his justice. Perhaps your not comfortable with this language of God being “bound” (neither am I), but perhaps you believe it anyway. Follow me for a second. Mercy is when you rightly deserve something and it is withheld from you. So, say for example, as a child you steal a candy bar from a shop and are caught in the act (in fact, the shopkeeper was watching you the whole time!). It could be argued, I suppose, that the shopkeeper could justly press charges against you for shoplifting or something like that. However, because the shopkeeper realizes that this child is, in fact, just a child, perhaps he would show mercy by withholding due punishment because, after all, you’re a child and learning right from wrong etc. That’s a bit what mercy is like.
Now, imagine an alternate scenario, where this shopkeeper is going through some rough times at home with his family and was in a terrible mood at work, so, instead of showing mercy he decides he is going to have you charged with shoplifting (and rightly so!). This may seem cruel and harsh, but it is just because the offense is being punished. However, in this case, justice necessarily negates mercy. It is not possible for there to be an expression of mercy here because the child is getting what they (arguably) deserve and mercy is not getting what you deserve.
Now, God is infinitely more merciful than a human shopkeeper so if we are to talk of God as merciful and just then he must be infinitely more merciful and just than any shopkeeper. However, as the above example has shown, mercy that is bound by justice is not mercy at all. Perhaps, instead, God can be both merciful and just (in fact, he is). But how can this be? This can only be so in Christ Jesus. Jesus takes on the full weight of our punishment. Everything that we deserve as a creation that has offended their Creator has been taken and placed on Christ. This has happened; past-tense. So, God is just because our offense has not gone unpunished, rather, he has taken that punishment upon himself.
As a result, God is merciful because we, the offenders, do not get what we deserve. The death and suffering that was our lot has been removed from us. Perhaps this is a way we can think of God’s mercy and justice.
Let us return for a moment to the answer given in the catechism: “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.” If God’s good creation is punished, “with extreme, that is, with everlasting punishment of body and soul,” we could, perhaps, speak of God as just, but I’m not sure we could speak of him as merciful. In fact, the wording in the catechism, “God is indeed merciful, but also just,” suggests that justice trumps mercy, which as noted above, robs mercy of anything merciful.
God is just, yes, but not at the expense of his mercy.