Justice, Mercy, and Wisdom: How the Cross Reveals and ‘Reconciles’ the Attributes of God

jeremy-bishop-480184-unsplash.jpgIt has been said that on the cross God’s wrath and mercy meet. Indeed, on the cross the full revelation of God’s undivided attributes are manifested. As just and justifier, Jesus receives in his body the full outpouring of God’s wrath. Yet, as God Incarnate, he simultaneously displays the love of God, as 1 John 3:16 states, “By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers.” Accordingly, all other moral attributes (e.g., truthfulness, justice, goodness, mercy, peace, righteousness) are revealed in perfect proportion.

I say proportion, but in the Lord there are not proportions, parts, or passions (taken in the older sense of the word, where men are moved by passionate forces outside themselves). In truth, God’s holy character is perfect light. Yet, refracted through creation and especially the cross, we come to see the many hues of God’s holy character. And because our minds require time and sequence to contemplate God’s unified holiness, the cross not only reconciles us to God, it also reconciles in our minds how seemingly divergent attributes are held together in the Lord.

On this point, Edward Fisher in his work The Marrow of Modern Divinity proposes a conversation between God’s many attributes and how they might have talked about the cross of Christ. To be sure, his conversation is maximally anthropological (i.e., it uses human speech to talk about God). In this way, it is unhelpful in thinking on the simplicity of God (i.e., the nature of his unchanging, undivided essence). But for us, finite creatures, who must come to understand the rainbow of God’s glory through sequential time and logical relationships, his conversation is helpful and I share it below.

Answering the question of God’s purpose in sending Jesus Christ, Edwards answers in the voice of Evangelista.

Why, here the learned frame a kind of conflict in God’s holy attributes; and by a liberty, which the Holy Ghost, from the language of holy Scripture, alloweth them, they speak of God after the manner of men, as if he were reduced to some straits and difficulties, by the cross demands of his several attributes.

For Truth and Justice stood up and said, that man had sinned, and therefore man must die; and so called for the condemnation of a sinful, and therefore worthily a cursed creature; or else they must be violated: for thou saidst (said they to God), ‘In that day that thou eatest of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt die the death.’

Mercy, on the other side, pleaded for favour, and appeals to the great court in heaven: and there it pleads, saying, Wisdom, and power, and goodness, have been all manifest in the creation; and anger and justice have been magnified in man’s misery that he is now plunged into by his fall: but I have not yet been manifested. [Mercy requires an object in misery.] O let favour and compassion be shown towards man, woefully seduced and overthrown by Satan!

Oh! said they [favour and compassion] unto God, it is a royal thing to relieve the distressed; and the greater any one is, the more placable and gentle he ought to be.
But Justice replied, if I be offended, I must be satisfied and have my right; and therefore I require, that man, who hath lost himself by his disobedience, should, for remedy, set obedience against it, and so satisfy the judgment of God.

Therefore the wisdom of God became an umpire, and devised a way to reconcile them; concluding, that before there could be reconciliation made, there must be two things effected; (1) a satisfaction of God’s justice, (2) a reparation of man’s nature: which two things must needs be effected by such a middle and common person that had both zeal towards God, that he might be satisfied; and compassion towards man, that he might be repaired: such a person, as, having man’s guilt and punishment translated on him, might satisfy the justice of God, and as having a fullness of God’s Spirit and holiness in him, might sanctify and repair the nature of man. And this could be none other but Jesus Christ, one of the Three Persons of the blessed Trinity; therefore he, by his Father’s ordination, his own voluntary offering, and the Holy Spirit’s sanctification, was fitted for the business. (The Marrow of Modern Divinity, 63–64)

On the cross God’s justice and mercy meet, because in his eternal wisdom, God knew that the cross would be the place and the way he would prove himself just and the justifier. Therefore, may we who love his salvation and the glory of God marvel at what he has accomplished in Christ’s death and resurrection and how it displays most perfectly his loving justice and righteous mercy.

Soli Deo Gloria, ds

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