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Author:Dr. Reuben Bredenhof
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Congregation:Canadian Reformed Theological Seminary (CRTS)
 Hamilton, Ontario
Preached At:Free Reformed Church of Mt. Nasura
 Mt. Nasura, Western Australia
Title:The Perfect Marriage of Justice and Mercy
Text:LD 4 (View)
Occasion:Regular Sunday
Topic:God's Justice

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

Ps 98:1                                                                                                          

Hy 1

Reading – Ezekiel 18

Ps 85:2,3,4

Sermon – Lord’s Day 4

Ps 32:1,3

Hy 5:1,2,3,4

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Dr. Reuben Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.

Beloved in Christ, if someone has given their word, we expect them to hold to it. If a father promises his daughter that they’ll read a story after supper, then he better do that. If the phone company promises a full refund, then they should give it. If a husband and wife promise to love and help one another, ‘till death do them part, they must aim to honour those words. Whether something significant is promised, or something less weighty, we expect that a person’s words will be reliable, that they’ll do what they say.

And if they don’t, it doesn’t sit too well with us. Any of us will complain when a promise gets ignored or a contract isn’t honoured. And not just Christians, but all people, know that a “promise is a promise, and must be kept.” For this is how God made us. He created us in his image, and part of that means we were made in “righteousness.” This perfection was shattered by sin, yet fragments of it remain. From somewhere deep within, we still want things to be fair, and we expect people to follow through on what they say.

Because that, indeed, is what our God is like. God’s righteousness means that his ways are integrity and honour. If He gives his Word on something, He’ll also hold to it. He won’t go back on his commitments, and He won’t change his values. As the Scripture says, “Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?” (Gen 18:25). He will! We know it.

So God’s righteousness is something we can delight in. We know that we can count on him, and depend on his Word. Yet the fact is, not everything that God has said is in our favour. The LORD has also said things that put sinners like us in an awfully uncomfortable position. For when it comes to sin and its punishment, God will not change his standards—He cannot change his standards! Pointing to the work of Christ our Saviour, this is what Lord’s Day 4 helps us to see, under this theme,

Sinners fear and delight in the righteousness of God:

  1. God’s high standard
  2. the soul’s heavy responsibility
  3. God’s rich mercy


1. God’s high standard: Before getting into God’s high standard, we should back up a moment. Why can God require us to do anything, and to do it his way? It’s the same kind of question we could mumble to ourselves after we’re pulled over for speeding on the highway: “Whoever put the police in charge? What gives that officer the right to charge me with an offense, and to require me to pay this fine?” It’s the question of authority.

So who put God in charge? No one put him in charge, but He is in charge. That is a key principle in Ezekiel 18. More on the background of the chapter a bit later, but as God speaks to his people about sin and justice, He makes his authority crystal clear: “Behold, all souls are mine; the soul of the father as well as the soul of the son is mine” (v 4). All souls are his. God has the authority to require everyone to live a certain way, by his standard. And He also has the authority to punish mankind when we don’t.

“All souls are mine.” Why is that? It goes back to God’s creation of the universe and everything in it, including all those souls. God made us, therefore He rules us. He has the final say—the only real say—in what happens to us, and in what we should do. He designed us, created us, sustained us, so He stands over us.

Compare it to the police officer in the car behind you. He has his authority partly because we’ve agreed to that, as members of this society. By being citizens of this country, we’ve agreed to follow its rules, because it’s safer for everyone when we do. But God in heaven has his authority because He made us. He didn’t need our agreement. He didn’t have to convince us that it was in our best interests. And He doesn’t have to explain himself to us, because He is the King and Judge.

So you’d think that this great God could say very little. Just give the rules, and leave it at that! And his holy standard is quite simple. We see it in Lord’s Day 2, “Love the Lord your God with your heart, soul, and mind. And love your neighbour as yourself.” That’s what He requires. And as the righteous lawmaker and judge, God could merely post that law—put it up like a sign along the highway that says “Speed Limit: 100 km/h.” He could post it, and then start pulling over all the offenders.

Yet God says much more—much more than that “first and greatest commandment, and the second one like it.” For He says it again. And again. In so many parts of Scripture, God repeats his royal law. He puts a new shine on the golden rule. He teaches us in detailed ways how to work out our faith on a daily basis, in the church, and in the world.

He’s a most patient lawgiver. But He’s also a righteous judge. For now that He’s told us what He requires, God insists that his law be kept, without fault or fail. He has a high standard, one so high that it’s perfect—and He can accept nothing less. We’re not used to thinking about rules that way. Take the household rules that parents will set for their children. I don’t know how it is in your household, but I suspect there’s always going to be a bit of give-and-take. Those strict bedtimes become negotiable in the holidays. Once in a while, you can get away without finishing your plate at dinner. Or just think of how often the police aren’t around to notice your speeding. Point is, the rules get bent and broken. And generally we’re all right with that.

But it’s different with God. He’s an infinitely holy God, an unfailingly righteous God. He made these good laws, and He wants them honoured. His laws aren’t just friendly advice or helpful direction for a better life—they are law. We can’t pick and choose what to obey. No, our obedience before him has to be flawless. The demand of the law is perfect and perpetual obedience. As James writes, “For whoever shall keep the whole law, and yet stumble in just one point, he is guilty of all” (2:10).

And why does God stand by his commandments so closely? Because they express his own nature and character. The Ten Commandments say to us: “This is what God values. This is how highly He esteems his Name, and his holy day. This is God’s own truth about parents and children, husbands and wives, money and speech and desire.” To break these precepts is to go against God himself.

So breaking his law hits close to home with God. When we get a speeding ticket, or we get a yellow card in soccer, we don’t expect the officer or the umpire to be personally disappointed by what we’ve done wrong—the penalty is given, and everyone moves on. But with God, every transgression of his law weighs heavy. These are the words He has given, and because God is righteous, He’s angered by anything that goes against them. The Catechism says: “[God] is terribly displeased” with our sin (Q&A 10).

Which means that we have a serious problem, don’t we? Because the law of God is good, and we are not. Loving God and loving our neighbour sounds very simple, but in practice, it’s terribly hard. In fact, we can’t do it. Every new day we can resolve to aim in the right direction, but so often we’re not even close to hitting the mark. We fall short.

Think of a good day that you once had. It was a day where you did you devotions faithfully in the morning, and then you thought about the Lord almost every hour. You felt good, you did good. Very little went wrong in your day, so there was hardly the temptation to become angry or worried. You had opportunities to help other people, and you felt that you blessed them. At night you closed your eyes with a sense of satisfaction—and not just satisfied with yourself, but satisfied in the Lord. Days like that don’t happen too often, do they?

But even days like that are full of sin. Our very best works, our best service and sacrifice, even with the best of intentions on our best days, are still blemished by the very worst of our weakness, our pride, our forgetfulness. More than we realize, we still go astray so often. We’re still centred on ourselves, and not others, and not on God—to say nothing of the guilt that still clings to us, deep within. This isn’t because God is so hard to please. But it’s because He’s so righteous. It’s a tough message, isn’t it? We haven’t heard much about Christ just yet. So let’s consider a second point,


2. the soul’s heavy responsibility: We’ve probably all heard public figures like politicians make an apology. Except they don’t sound much like apologies. “I’m sorry that everyone took my comments the wrong way.” Or this one: “I admit that I did wrong, but I was under a lot of stress at the time.” These apologies sound pretty hollow, don’t they? But we all do that, because we don’t like to take responsibility for our sin. We’ll try put the fault on someone else. We point to the events of our past, the kind of personality we have, or maybe the people in our life. We look for escape routes.

The Israelites tried too. There had been that great disaster, when God’s people were exiled for seventy years. Jerusalem was destroyed, the temple worship ended, and many were forced to live in Babylon. The situation was so bad, the exiles just had to blame someone.

And boys and girls, listen to this—the Israelites found someone convenient to blame: their parents! They even had a proverb for it, “The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge” (Ezek 18:2). The exiles were saying that all their suffering was because of the sin of the previous generation: “They sinned (they ate sour grapes), but we get all the unpleasantness (our teeth are set on edge).” We might say it this way: “The parents ate the spicy food, but the kids get the heartburn!”

There was some truth to that, of course. For generations now, the prophets had warned about the consequences of sin, until God’s patience ran out. But even though God’s warnings went back for decades, it didn’t mean that the people in the exile had no share in the blame. No, they too, had been wicked; they too, had worshiped idols. They all had to admit that they were worthy of God’s judgment.

So God insists on another key truth: a sinner is always responsible for his own sin! “All souls are mine,” God said, “the father’s, the son’s, everyone’s.” And God holds each person accountable for his own guilt. It comes out in verse 4, and it’s repeated often in the chapter, “The soul who sins shall die.” That sinning soul, that man or woman or child, will be punished. If you sin, you can be sure of it: God will seek the death penalty. You can assign the responsibility to no one else, and the blame cannot be shifted. It’s on you.

It’s the righteous standard of the Lord. And Ezekiel wasn’t coming with something new, either. It’s always been that way—remember what God announced in the Garden of Eden, concerning the tree, “The day you eat of it, you will surely die.” And as Paul would say in Romans, “The wages of sin is death.”

Compare it to our legal system today. The criminal code has recommended punishments for certain crimes. Drug trafficking will generally get you one length of time in jail; assaulting someone will get you a longer sentence; first degree murder is punished with the most severe penalty, life in prison. These penalties keep things fair. And the righteous God is consistent too! He has set a punishment for human sinfulness: “He will punish them by a just judgment, both now and eternally” (Q&A 10).

It’s an important lesson, so Ezekiel takes quite a few verses to explain it. In the first part of the chapter he describes one generation. A righteous man—not a sinless man, not perfect—but one who strives to keep the law of God. He doesn’t eat at the high places or worship idols, he doesn’t defile his neighbour’s wife, or oppress the poor. Because he lives by faith, God will look on him with favour.

But then the next generation comes along, and there’s a real difference. For that righteous man has a son, and he is “a robber, a shedder of blood” (v 10), one who worships at the pagan shrines and takes advantage of the poor. Maybe this sinful son thought that he could claim the merits of his faithful father. Maybe he thought he could get a ride to heaven with his holy parents. But no! God plays no favourites, and He’s fair in his judgments. The prophet says about that sinner, “If he has done any of these abominations, he shall surely die; his blood shall be upon him” (v 13). That’s the heavy responsibility of the soul, of every person. You own your sin.

Isn’t there a message in that for us as covenant community? We always emphasize the tight links between the generations, how a father and a mother can teach their children about God’s ways. The parents’ example and the godly atmosphere of a home are so valuable. These things can have such an impact, even for a lifetime. That being so, each and every covenant child has their own responsibility, to love God and serve him.

So He seeks their wholehearted and living response. It’s not enough for you to point to your baptism. You can’t claim that as your free pass into grace. You’re also not eternally secure because of the dedication of your parents, or because your family is known for being Reformed. God says, “What about you? I know your father, and your mother I know, but what about you? Do you love me, and do you serve me?” You have your own calling in Christ!

Ezekiel calls the second generation to be committed to the Lord’s ways. It’s up to them. The prophet explains again in verse 20, “The son shall not bear the guilt of the father, nor the father bear the guilt of the son. The righteousness of the righteous shall be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon himself.” That’s only fair. You can’t point to others, either to blame them or to hide behind them. Before God’s throne in heaven, there is one soul, and one judgment.

Sounds simple. God’s law is plain, and his punishment is plain. To put it bluntly, “You sin, you die.” And there’s no hope for leniency. When we’re in trouble, it’s what we hope for. We wonder if that speeding ticket for “15 over” can be dropped to “10 over.” Maybe we can do an extra chore instead of being grounded. So we say, “If God is so good and so merciful, can’t He just let our disobedience go unpunished? That’s the thought behind Question 10 of the Catechism. Sure, God knows we sinned, but couldn’t He let it go?

But because God is God, we can’t expect him to go soft on sin, or be fickle with what He said before. He has to uphold that perfect standard of his “most high majesty” (Q&A 11). Otherwise, He’ll contradict himself. And if He contradicts himself, what kind of God would He be? Certainly not a God worthy of trust. How could we trust him, if God kept his Word sometimes, but not other times? How could we ever know that He’s dependable?

We want to believe in God’s promises as 100% trustworthy. We delight to know that God is a righteous God, and maintains his Word. When God promises to carry you through hardship, there’s a great comfort—the LORD will do just what He said! He will carry you. And when God promises to provide you with everything that your family needs, there’s sure peace in such a promise—the LORD will do what He said! In Jesus Christ God keeps all his words with a perfect righteousness, and with a perfect mercy.


3. God’s rich mercy: Ezekiel 18 and Lord’s Day 4 are tough to read. But in both places there’s a sure glimmer of light in the darkness. “God is indeed merciful…” begins Answer 11. Also in Ezekiel 18, there’s this wonderful truth. That is, God doesn’t delight in condemning sinners. In verse 23 He asks: “Do I have any pleasure at all that the wicked should die…and not that he should turn from his ways and live?” Was the exile something God wanted to inflict on his people? Does God enjoy handing out “everlasting punishment of body and soul?”

No, God wants sinners to live. He wants every sinner to turn from sin, and flee to him for mercy! Ezekiel shows this by picturing one more generation, the third, in verses 14-17. Remember in the first generation how there was a good man who strived to live out his faith, and who was blessed. Then there was the second generation, a son who thought he could live any way he wanted because he came from a family of church-goers—and he died for his own guilt.

And then comes the son of that sinner, the third generation. And he rejects his father’s example; he’s like his grandfather. He “sees all the sins which his father has done, and considers but does not do likewise” (v 14). That’s not the life for him! He avoids idols, he lives in purity, and he shows mercy to the poor. Of him God says, “He has executed my judgments, and walked in my statutes” (v 17). His father might’ve been guilty, but the son won’t share in it.

For this is God’s sure promise. He will forgive his believers, and He’ll show mercy to all who repent. And this doesn’t mean that God has changed his standards. No, God will still do what He says. He’ll seek the death penalty for sin. But here’s the best news that we could ever hope for: that penalty can be carried by someone else! In his rich mercy, God provides someone to stand in the sinner’s place. If you have sinned, beloved, you don’t have to die! If you have sinned but repented, you have hope. For Jesus Christ, God’s own Son, became sin for us. Hanging on the cross, He took on the full curse, punished “with the most severe, that is, with everlasting punishment of body and soul” (Q&A 11).

In Christ, God’s love and justice are put on display, side by side. Mercy and righteousness are perfectly married in him. For it means that if we’re united to Christ by faith, his perfect holiness is all ours. If we are united to Christ by faith, his perfect death is our death. And then when we’re standing before Christ’s throne at the end of time, He will acknowledge our names, and we will live. “These ones are mine.”

Friends, it’s a sure thing. By faith in Christ, we are made right with God. It’s his solid declaration. It’s true because He says it’s true. I realize how that can be hard for us to accept. Most of the time, we prefer to listen to our feelings. We don’t accept something until we feel it deep down inside, and we don’t think something is true until it moves us. Instead, though, have confidence in God’s sure promise. Believe what He’s said—believe it, because He’s said it! For He is righteous. His Word is truth. If we believe in Christ, there’s nothing to fear—not now, not ever.

We end with that closing word that Ezekiel. It’s a final call for God’s people to take seriously their sin, and to take seriously their salvation: “‘Cast away from you all the transgressions which you have committed, and get yourselves a new heart and a new spirit. For why should you die?…Turn and live!’” (vv 31-32). “Turn and live.” That’s a command, with a promise. And because the righteous God has said it, we know that it is true, for Jesus’ sake. “Turn to him, and live.”  Amen.

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Dr. Reuben Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.
(c) Copyright 2016, Dr. Reuben Bredenhof

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