“The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. . . . As far as the east is from the west, so far does he remove our transgressions from us.”
Questions 1–10 of the Heidelberg Catechism emphasize the biblical themes of our fallenness and the wrath of God against sin, which is an appropriate place to begin. After all, Paul begins his exposition of the gospel in the book of Romans with a focus on the universal plight of Jews and Gentiles under sin (1:18–3:20). The Heidelberg Catechism is likewise concerned with the gospel, so it makes sense for it to begin by highlighting our desperate plight in this world. Realizing that we deserve only condemnation (Rom. 3:23; 6:23) is essential for understanding what the Bible means when it refers to God as “merciful and gracious” (Ps. 103:8–12). In our day, many people want to talk only about the Lord’s mercy and grace, which are expressions of His love for sinners. Yet these concepts are meaningless if we do not look at them in relation to our wickedness. Grace is the unmerited favor of God toward undeserving creatures, and mercy is His decision not to pour out wrath on all people but to provide for the forgiveness of some. If we are not clear on the depth of our fallenness and wickedness, then both mercy and grace become things we are owed or do not even need because we have not committed cosmic treason in our sinning. Until we have an adequate view of God’s holiness as displayed in His hatred of sin and of the judgment we deserve as lawbreakers who hate His law (Hab. 1:12–13; Rom. 3:9–20), we cannot see the greatness of the Lord’s mercy and grace. We must know the bad news about who we are as sinners before we can receive the good news of the gospel. Indeed, our Creator is “merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love,” all of which are evident in His choice to forgive those who repent and believe His promises in Christ Jesus (2 Chron. 7:14; 1 John 1:8–9). As the answer to question 11 of the Heidelberg Catechism puts it, “God is certainly merciful.” We can count on Him showing forgiveness to all those who turn from their sins and follow Christ. God’s mercy is not a matter of forgetting or ignoring our sin; rather, His mercy is seen in His choice not to hold our sins against us if we repent and believe. As Matthew Henry writes, our sins “shall never be laid to our charge, nor rise up in judgment against us. If we thoroughly forsake them, God will thoroughly forgive them.”
Coram DeoLiving before the face of God
After years of walking as Christians, it can be easy for us to take the mercy and grace of God for granted. Returning again to our sin and repenting for offending the Lord can help us stay aware of His goodness, love, grace, and mercy. We should be reflecting daily on the ways in which we still fall short of God’s glory and asking for forgiveness. Then, we should confess our sins to God and throw ourselves on His sure mercy in Christ Jesus.