The movie theater experience just isn’t the same without the lights off. I learned this firsthand when, after the first thirty seconds of Star Wars: The Force Awakens accidently played in a lit theater, three irritated guys stormed out and demanded that the staff turn the lights down. A dark backdrop contrasted against a light image adds volume and drama to the total experience.
We might say that the catechism is set up that way as well. God’s just and righteous judgment against our sin provides the dark back- drop against which the glory of the gospel shines through. After we’ve understood the depth of our calamity, we can better appreciate the true magnitude of God’s rescue plan for us.
The catechism tells us that God freely and mercifully satisfied the demands of his own justice on our behalf. According to Isaiah 53, God made the righteous life of his servant (Jesus Christ) to be a substitutionary offering for the unrighteous. In obedience to God’s will, Jesus Christ lived the life we should have lived and so fulfilled the just requirements of God’s law on our behalf. Yet he also died the death we should have died. Isaiah’s graphic language of the servant being “crushed” and “put to grief” (Isa. 53:10) reminds us of the heavy price of our sin. At the cross, Jesus bore the full weight of God’s curse against sin and so fully satisfied the demands of God’s just condemnation against sin. So we have a righteous life that satisfies the justice of God for us and an atoning death that satisfies the justice of God for us. This great exchange is the heart of the gospel itself.
Perhaps the most startling aspect of Isaiah’s language is that it “pleased” the Lord to make this exchange. Somehow, it actually pleased the Lord to hand his innocent Son over to be mocked, brutalized, and crucified. That’s a nearly impossible truth to fathom until you realize why God was pleased by this. Certainly, God was not pleased by the sin of Judas who betrayed Jesus, the religious leaders who hated him, Pilate who unjustly sentenced him, or the misguided crowd who rejected him. But God was pleased by the active and passive (through suffering) obedience of his Son, who continued to trust God and love his people no matter the cost. God was pleased to lay his judgment upon the Son in order to save his sinful people. God was pleased because, through the cross, the Son of God would be glorified, the people of God would be saved, the justice of God would be satisfied, and the love of God would be revealed. The cross was not a tragic accident. It was God’s will, his plan to save his people through the work of the Redeemer and to reveal the immeasurable riches of his glorious grace.
Finally, God freely and mercifully made this exchange. The catechism is careful to point out that the cause of God punishing Jesus in order to rescue us was “mere mercy.” The language “mere mercy” means grace alone, grace apart from any other considerations. As the great preacher C. H. Spurgeon famously wrote, salvation is “all of grace.” Although this grace trains us to avoid ungodliness, it does not depend upon our obedience in any way. As we consider the besetting sins and ongoing weaknesses of our lives, we have to cling to the “mere grace” aspect of the gospel. God did not give his beloved Son in view of what he would get out of our lives, but merely because he loves us. Now that’s good news indeed!