Note 22 April 2008: What follows is very rough draft of the beginning of a commentary on the HC. This material may not be published, re-published or distributed without the express permission of the author.
It is the great need of the confessional Reformed community, i.e., the “sideline” denominations and federations in the North American Presbyterian and Reformed Council (NAPARC) and the “borderline” denominations (e.g. the Evangelical Presbyterian Church or the Christian Reformed Churches) those moving either toward the confessions or moving away from the Reformed confessions, recover the Reformed confession.
.The verb “to recover” signals that something has been lost and needs to be sought and found. That something has been lost seems fairly evident. The list of what has been lost and the list and explanation of the reasons why they have been lost would make the first half of a compelling book (hmm, somebody should write that book; hey, hold on, someone is!). We have lost important elements of Reformed theology (e.g., the Creator/creature distinction), piety (e.g., the preaching of the gospel and sacraments as the objective means of grace), and practice (e.g., the regulative principle of worship). The two chief reasons for these losses are the Quest for Illegitimate Religious Certainty (QIRC) and the Quest for Illegitimate Religious Experience (QIRE). The alternative to these quests is confessional Reformed theology, piety, and practice.
Toward their recovery let us take our catechism to hand and begin working through it step by step.
What is a Catechism?
A catechism is a book of question and answers. It was an ancient way of teaching and remains an effective way of teaching today since, however much the world changes around us, people are still still people. We still have to eat, sleep, and learn and those things don’t change fundamentally.
The Heidelberg Catechism was published in three editions with the third and final edition appearing in 1563. It was commissioned by Frederich III upon becoming the elector (governor) of the Palatinate in what we now know as Germany. Heidelberg was the capital city of the Palatinate (political district in the Holy Roman Empire). When he became elector, Frederick inherited a religiously confused situation. Not many years before, of course, everyone had been Roman Catholic. Then, under his predecessor, Otto Heinrich, the Lutheran Reformation had been introduced. Friederich, however, was not a Lutheran but Reformed. So the people were going to change religions for the third time in just a few years. Of course this all sounds strange to us, but it was the 16th century and under the terms of the Peace of Augsburg (1555) the ruler’s religion was the peoples’ religion (cuius regio, eius religio, whose the rule, his the religion). It’s a long story but this arrangement was known generally as Christendom and it was widely assumed in Europe that there must be a state church and that there could be only one church in a country or political district. In the pre-modern world, one did not assume the right to choose one’s religion any more than one assumed the right to choose one’s ruler.
Thus, Frederick gathered in Heidelberg a group of scholars and pastors to implement a Reformed Reformation. The two best known of this group were Zacharias Ursinus (1534-83) and Caspar Olevianus (1536-87). These two men were the principal authors of the Heidelberg Catechism, though it was edited by a committee. Frederick did not want it known who wrote the catechism. As a result we don’t know exactly who wrote which questions in every case. A great deal of research has been done to try to sort out the “source-criticism” of the catechism. It seems likely that Ursinus wrote most of the catechism and Olevianus wrote less. They certainly drew from a number of existing Protestant catechisms including Luther’s small catechism, Calvin’s catechisms, and many others.
What is Your Only Comfort? The Relevance of the Catechism
The Heidelberg Catechism was intended to explain the Reformed faith to those who were unsure of what Reformed people believed and how the Reformed faith related to what they had learned before, Romanism and a version of Lutheranism.
Like the Heidelbergers in the 16th century, we live in a religiously confused time. Though the faith is not being imposed on us from above, nevertheless, like the Heidelbergers, we are not entirely sure what we believe and why. That much is evident by the bewildering array of “evangelical” options (open theism, closed theism, inerrancy, limited inerrancy, traditional church, emerging churches etc. ad infinitum). Not only were the Heidelbergers confused but they faced the same temptations we do, to confuse the law (“do this and live”) with the gospel (“Christ has done for sinners”). They were tempted to present themselves to God partly on the basis of grace and partly on the basis and/or through (does it really matter which?) their cooperation with grace. Like us, they struggled with assurance (“have I done enough? Does God really approve of me?”). Like us, they wondered how they ought to live? Remember, when they lived, it was the “modern” world! People said, “It’s the 16th century! We know better than to think that…(fill in the blank).” Though they lived in different times we have much in common with them.
Like the 16th-century Heidelbergers, we too need to learn and re-learn some basic truths. That there is one comfort for Christians and there is one way to obtain that comfort and without it, well, let’s just say that this life is hard enough and the next life will be hell.
Recently I saw video footage of some pre-historic beast that, until recently, no one knew existed. Relative to the great ocean of contemporary evangelical options in theology, piety, and practice, the catechism is like that pre-historic beast. It just continues to exist, to swim, to be what it has always been.
That is not to say that the catechism is irrelevant, far from it! If relevance is defined by truth, need, and felicity of expression, then the catechism is more relevant now than ever before. It has been a long time since Christian folk were so confused about theology, piety, and practice. In our time, Reformed folk have probably drifted farther from their moorings than at any time since the 16th century. Many congregants can recite the words to a seeming endless list of repetitive “Scripture” choruses, they can tell you about Joel Osteen’s latest message, but they couldn’t tell the rudiments of the doctrine of the Trinity or the doctrine of justification or the nature of the Lord’s Supper if they were waterboarded.
So, once more into the breach comes the pre-historic catechism starting with the absolute basics of the Christian life a working gradually through the Biblical faith from A to Z — and when you’re learning a new language, starting with the first letter of the alphabet is a the way to go.
The alphabet of the catechism begins with comfort (Trost), but not quite in the way we’re used to using the word. It doesn’t signify “comfort” as in “comfort foods,” something that makes me feel better (but may or may not be of any real help). The Latin translation of the catechism asks, “What is your only consolation in life and in death?”
What is the bedrock truth that you know with heart and mind to be true, that will sustain you when everything else you know in this life goes south? “That I, with body and soul, both in life and in death, am not my own, but belong to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ.” This is a comfort, a certainty, a consolation, a hope, a confidence in which one can and must rest because, as long Jesus delays his return, there isn’t a mortal alive who isn’t resting in something, and will not need some comfort.
It’s possible for one’s comfort, hope, and consolation to be true! When it comes to the end, when one’s skin goes cold and life ebbs away, you will want not just any comfort, but THE comfort. You will not want Joel Osteen by your bedside, you won’t want “Shine, Jesus, Shine” but you will want someone singing Ps 77, you will want Ursinus or Olevianus, as it were, with you. You want someone who isn’t promising you pie in the sky now but someone who always told you the truth, even it when it was unpleasant. Then you will believe when he tells you this truth: Every mortal who trusts in Christ knows with head, and heart, and his whole soul, that as he lives this life and leaves it, he does so in the arms of the one who loved us and gave himself for us. That’s your best life now.
Americans know in their heart of hearts they’re going to die but they don’t like to admit it. It’s a mark of our post-Christianity that this culture is so obsessed with youth and beauty. Most folk don’t die at home anymore. Many folk have never seen a dead person. We go away to antiseptic hospital rooms to die and are boxed up and delivered to the funeral home and, in many cases, (even the “open casket” seems to be disappearing) never seen again.
It wasn’t so in the 16th century. Death as a routine part of life. Life expectancy was rather shorter than it is today. One of the things that tipped me to this fact was a 16th-century sketch of Olevianus as an old man, except at the time of the sketch he wasn’t “old.” He was 30 years old.
You know, of course, about the “Black Death,” which swept through Europe in the middle ages killing as many as 1/3 of the population. Death was a frequent visitor in everyone’s house. So, for the catechism to ask about our comfort in “in life and in death,” was a good and necessary question then and it remains so now. No matter how much we exercise (and that’s a good thing), diet, and preen, should Jesus delay his return, we’re going to die. It’s hard enough when friends and loved ones disappoint us, but eventually even our body will disappoint us. When all else fails, on what will you depend? On your good works? Be honest, you know that all of your works are tainted. Never in your life have your motives been completely pure about anything. If in the greatest act of self-denial in your life you hoped secretly that someone would notice. Your obedience isn’t perfect so it’s not trustworthy. If your obedience isn’t perfect then your sanctity isn’t perfect, so you can’t trust it. Your friends aren’t perfect. You can’t work forever. Your employer or employees or your business partner will let you down when you need them most. Your spouse will disappoint you. Your best friends will fail you.
On what or whom can you trust?
That I, with body and soul, both in life and in death, am not my own, but belong to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ, who with His precious blood has fully satisfied for all my sins, and redeemed me from all the power of the devil; and so preserves me that without the will of my Father in heaven not a hair can fall from my head; indeed, that all things must work together for my salvation. Wherefore, by His Holy Spirit, He also assures me of eternal life, and makes me heartily willing and ready from now on to live unto Him.
Only Jesus never let anyone down. Only Jesus is a faithful Savior. Lot’s of people and things promise help, but, at some point they all become liars. Jesus never did. He told his disciples why he came up to Jerusalem. He told them what was going to happen and why. They tried to talk him out of it and even started a gang fight, but Jesus would not be stopped. He knew what had to be done and he did it –every day of his life. God’s justice is relentless and had to be satisfied (just ask the folk of Noah’s generation!) and Jesus did it. Jesus knew that without his life and death we would always be in the power of death. Because he was faithful, however, we, for whom Jesus has earned the ground of our comfort and and to whom the Spirit has given faith, are free from the tyranny of death.
Whatever the advertisers tell you — unless Jesus returns first — you are going to die. If, however, you trust in Jesus it’s just a temporary thing. Death can’t hold you because it couldn’t hold him and you are united to him and the power of his life by faith and by the same Spirit who raised him. As surely as Jesus lives, so will you.
The Structure of the Catechism
The Heidelberg Catechism, building on the breakthrough of the first stage of the Reformation, is organized in three parts. Remarkably, as basic an insight as this is, it continues to elude nearly all evangelicals and many ostensibly Reformed folk. This should not surprise us because even when the catechism first appeared there was some confusion about how to interpret it. Zacharias Ursinus, whom Frederick III authorized to explain and defend the catechism, mentions some of the alternatives and then proceeds to explain that the catechism is in three parts: Law, Gospel, and Sanctification. He said:
The chief and most important parts of the first principles of the doctrine of the church, as appears from the passage just quoted from the Epistle to the Hebrews, are repentance and faith in Christ, which we may regard as synonymous with the law and gospel. Hence, the catechism in its primary and most general sense, may be divided as the doctrine of the church, into the law and gospel. It does not differ from the doctrine of the church as it respects the subject and matter of which it treats, but only in the form and manner in which these things are presented, just as strong meat designed for adults, to which the doctrine of the church may be compared, does not differ in essence from the milk and meat prepared for children, to which the catechism is compared by Paul in the passage already referred to. These two parts are termed, by the great mass of men, the Decalogue and the Apostles’ creed; because the Decalogue comprehends the substance of the law, and the Apostles’ creed that of the gospel. Another distinction made by this same class of persons is that of the doctrine of faith and works, or the doctrine of those things which are to be believed and those which are to be done.
There are others who divide the catechism into these three parts; considering, in the first place, the doctrine respecting God, then the doctrine respecting his will, and lastly that respecting his works, which they distinguish as the works of creation, preservation, and redemption. But all these different parts are treated of either in the law or the gospel, or in both, so that this division may easily be reduced to the former.
There are others, again, who make the catechism consist of five different parts; the Decalogue, the Apostles’ Creed, Baptism, the Lord’s Supper, and Prayer; of which, the Decalogue was delivered immediately by God himself, whilst the other parts were delivered mediately, either through the manifestation of the Son of God in the flesh, as is true of the Lord’s Prayer, Baptism, and the Eucharist, or through the ministry of the apostles, as is true of the Apostles’ Creed. But all these different parts may also be reduced to the two general heads noticed in the first division. The Decalogue contains the substance of the law, the Apostles’ Creed that of the gospel; the sacraments are parts of the gospel, and may, therefore, be embraced in it as far as they are seals of the grace which it promises, but as far as they are testimonies of our obedience to God, they have the nature of sacrifices and pertain to the law, whilst prayer, in like manner, may be referred to the law, being a part of the worship of God.
The catechism of which we shall speak in these lectures consists of three parts. The first treats of the misery of man, the second of his deliverance from this misery, and the third of gratitude, which division does not, in reality, differ from the above, because all the parts which are there specified are embraced in these three general heads. The Decalogue belongs to the first part, in as far as it is the mirror through which we are brought to see ourselves, and thus led to a knowledge of our sins and misery, and to the third part in as far as it is the rule of true thankfulness and of a Christian life. The Apostles’ Creed is embraced in the second part inasmuch as it unfolds the way of deliverance from sins. The sacraments, belonging to the doctrine of faith and being the seals that are attached thereto, belong in like manner to this second part of the catechism, which treats of deliverance from the misery of man. And prayer, being the chief part of spiritual worship and of thankfulness, may, with great propriety, be referred to the third general part.
If you’ve been around churches that use the catechism you might have head these parts expressed as “guilt, grace, and gratitude,” or “sin, salvation, service.” Those are all right, because they all say the same thing, though law, gospel, and sanctification gets to a basic Reformation truth that is widely misunderstood, denied, or confused: the distinction between law and gospel and the relations between those two categories and sanctification.
By this distinction, the confessional Protestants (e.g., Luther, Bucer, Calvin and the authors of the catechism) meant to reject the old patristic, medieval, and Roman doctrine that the Bible contains two kinds of law, old and new, and that under the new law (wherein Jesus is the “New Moses”) there is more grace to keep the law. They meant to say instead that the Bible contains two kinds of speaking, “law” (do this and live) and “gospel” (Christ has done or shall do for you). These two
ways of speaking are found throughout the history of redemption, throughout God’s Word.
This distinction was essential to the Reformation. It was the foundation for the doctrine of justification sola gratia, sola fide. The Reformation read the apostle Paul to be teaching just this distinction in the book of Romans. Indeed, the catechism itself is patterned on the book of Romans which is in three parts: law, gospel, and sanctification (the Christian life).
The pattern of the catechism is revealed quite clearly in the second question of the catechism:
Q2: How many things are necessary for you to know, that in this comfort you may live and die happily?
Three things: First, the greatness of my sin and misery. Second, how I am redeemed from all my sins and misery. Third, how I am to be thankful to God for such redemption.
The question asks for a number in order to answer the question. The answer is: three (not two – no this isn’t a Monty Python sketch! Some folks have tried to re-organize the Reformed as “grace and obligation.” Such a move is incompatible with the Heidelberg Catechism). There are three things that the Christian must know, 1) the greatness of his sin and misery; 2) how he is redeemed from the same; 3) how he is to be thankful to God for his redemption.
The third question makes this “law/gospel” reading of the catechism perfectly plain: “From where do you know your misery? A: Out of the law of God.” It is not the gospel that teaches us our sins, it is the law. This is exactly what the confessional Protestants before and after the authors of the Heidelberg Catechism taught. This is what we have come to know as the “first” use or the pedagogical use of the law. In this use the law (“do this and live”) acts like a school teacher (as they used to act in the ancient world) and beats us and demands perfection. There is nothing wrong with the law. As we shall see, the problem lies with us. This relentless and holy and righteous demand for perfection is an instrument in the hands, as it were, of the Holy Spirit who uses it to drive his elect to see themselves as they really are, outside of Christ: under condemnation and unable to fulfill the law’s demand.
The catechism doesn’t turn formally to the gospel per se until Q.19, but the gospel section of the catechism begins in Q. 12 and continues through Q. 85. This is important, because some of the revisionists (covenantal nomists/moralists) write and speak as if Q. 86 was a summary of the gospel. It isn’t. The gospel section ends with Q. 85. This distinction is important so that we do not slip back into the medieval/Roman/Socinian/Arminian confusion of law and gospel and of justification and sanctification.
According to the catechism (Q. 19) the gospel has been revealed throughout the history of salvation. The gospel is that Christ, as the righteous and holy One, has merited righteousness for his people, he has paid the penalty incurred by their sin, has suffered actively all his life in the place of all his people, died a horrible death for all his people, and has been raised for all his people. The good news is that all that the law requires for perfect righteousness has been accomplished and we benefit from it only be trusting, resting, and receiving Christ and his finished work for us as our own.
The catechism, however, does not stop there. From Q. 86 through 129, the catechism deals with the Christian life, with our new life in Christ, with dying to sin and living to Christ, the dying of the old man and the making alive of the new. The catechism is explicit, as we shall see, that we do not live this new life apart from grace, but in grace, and through faith. We do not live the new life in order to earn God’s approval or in a state of probation or under the law’s judgment. Rather, we live the new life in Christ, in grace, out of gratitude to Christ for his grace to sinners and his obedience for them, even unto the cross. We live the Christian life according to God’s revealed, moral will. Reformed folk call this the “third use” of the law, whereby the law serves as the norm of the Christian life. We cannot present ourselves to God either in part or in whole as law-keepers. To attempt that is legalism of the first order. The law doesn’t sanctify or justify or save us, but that doesn’t mean that we may dispense with it. Those who would do that are rightly called “antinomian.”
The catechism follows the pattern of Romans very closely. Having been redeemed, we belong to Christ and we want to do his will, not to be just but because we are just in Christ and we are his grateful people.
Just as we are theologically confused in our time so we are morally confused. The catechism offers a brilliant exposition of God’s law as the norm for our new life. As we meditate on the catechism may God renew our moral vision as the redeemed of the Lord.
“…has fully satisfied for all my sins…”
In order to understand our confession we need to know a little about the history of the medieval church before the Reformation. Rome taught (and teaches) that Christ died to make salvation possible (by the way, does this sound familiar? Don’t lots of evangelicals speak just this way about salvation?) The Reformed way of speaking about salvation is to say that Jesus accomplished salvation for us and applies it to us by his Spirit. According to Rome, however, Jesus’ death makes it possible and the Spirit begins the process of sanctification and eventual justification in baptism. In the Roman scheme, our duty is to cooperate with grace toward eventual, final justification. When we sin, according to Rome, we are obligated to do penance. The Roman Catechism, para. 1468 says:
“The whole power of the sacrament of Penance consists in restoring us to God’s grace and joining us with him in an intimate friendship.” Reconciliation with God is thus the purpose and effect of this sacrament. For those who receive the sacrament of Penance with contrite heart and religious disposition, reconciliation “is usually followed by peace and serenity of conscience with strong spiritual consolation.” Indeed the sacrament of Reconciliation with God brings about a true “spiritual resurrection,” restoration of the dignity and blessings of the life of the children of God, of which the most precious is friendship with God.
Rome recognizes that few are capable of doing penance perfectly. The next section of the catechism then turns to the very same doctrine that began to stir the beginnings of the Reformation: indulgences, an instrument instituted by Rome to remove “temporal” (this life and purgatory, para 1478) punishments. To obtain an indulgence, one must draw from the “treasury of merit.” One may obtains an indulgence e.g., by traveling to Rome in a jubilee year. Catechism para. 1476 says:
We also call these spiritual goods of the communion of saints the Church’s treasury, which is “not the sum total of the material goods which have accumulated during the course of the centuries. On the contrary the ‘treasury of the Church’ is the infinite value, which can never be exhausted, which Christ’s merits have before God. They were offered so that the whole of mankind could be set free from sin and attain communion with the Father. In Christ, the Redeemer himself, the satisfactions and merits of his Redemption exist and find their efficacy
Christ’s merits (and those of the saints, para. 1477) compose a treasury from which one draws and in which one participates by trusting and obeying (cooperating with grace, i.e., fulfilling assigned acts of penance). This is an anticipation of the final judgment (para 1470). Christ is said to have satisfied, but it’s always conditional. He’s has satisfied “if I…” Acts of penance have the virtue (power) of reconciling us with God, ourselves, and others.
Not so in the Heidelberg Catechism. According to the Protestant view, Jesus has propitiated God’s wrath and expiated our sins. He has satisfied for “all my sins.” He has reconciled God to me and all believers. Rome says, “It is begun.” Jesus says: “It is finished.” He has redeemed me from all the power of the devil. It isn’t just “underway.” It’s done. God is not propitiated, he is not reconciled, and I am not redeemed in any way by anything the Spirit does within me or anything I do in cooperation with grace. It’s done for me. The only “condition,” (instrument really) is this: “if only I accept such benefit with a believing heart” (HC 60). The whole Reformation can be said to have turned on the difference between two prepositions. When it comes to being right before God the Roman preposition is “in” and the Protestant preposition is “for.” Thank God for that little preposition “for!”
“…and so preserves me….”
One of the doctrines that distinguishes the Reformed faith from its competitors (e.g., Lutheranism, Rome) and its derivatives (e.g., Arminianism, Federal Visionism) is that we confess the doctrine of the preservation and perseverance of the saints. Scripture teaches that “I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one can snatch them out of my hand.” That is a categorical, unconditional promise. It is Jesus’ promise. He didn’t make that promise lightly. There is someone who would, were it possible, “snatch” Christ’s people from his hand. He began trying to snatch them when he encountered Jesus in the desert. He tried to snatch them by tempting Jesus in the same way he tempted the First Adam. He offered Jesus power and influence. The First Adam accepted this “false covenant” (Olevianus). The Second Adam obeyed God’s law without wavering. This adversary tried to snatch Jesus’ people when Jesus was at his weakest. He tried to snatch them when Jesus was tempted to doubt. He tried to snatch them as the soldiers mocked Jesus. It never happened. Jesus had all his people firmly in hand and he never let them go, not for a moment. He took us with him into the tomb, as it were, and he took us with him, as it were, when he emerged from the tomb. He took us with him when he ascended to the right hand in power. Our preservation and perseverance is as certain as Jesus’ ascension.
Some folk are telling you that, “there are two parts to every covenant, and if you don’t do your part, you’ll fall away just like those folk in Hebrews and all those Israelites.”
As with most errors, this warning is partly true. It’s true that there are two parts to every covenant. It’s true that some of the Israelites did not enter into the promised land. It’s true that some folk in the visible church fall away, but it’s not true that they fell away because they failed “to do their part.” That would be true if we were in a covenant of works, but we’re not. We’re in a covenant of grace. Our part is not to “do” anything in order to “keep” what we’ve been given. Paradoxically, what we have to do is to stop “doing” but to trust him who “did” for us. That’s the nature of grace. It’s a covenant of grace and that means that it is unconditional for us. It was conditional for Jesus, but it’s free for us who believe. “And if by grace, then it is no longer by works” (Rom 11:6).
Ps 95 and Heb 4 warn us about the Israelites but the warning is not to “be good” in order to persevere, but to believe. Heb 4:2 says that the Israelites heard the gospel just as we have. The gospel is the message of Christ’s finished work FOR sinners. God’s Word says:
Therefore, while the promise of entering his rest still stands, let us fear lest any of you should seem to have failed to reach it. For good news came to us just as to them, but the message they heard did not benefit them, because they were not united by faith with those who listened. For we who have believed enter that rest….
Jesus persevered and entered into his rest. Faith is “receiving and resting” or “resting and relying” on our “elder brother” Jesus who has gone into the promised land ahead of us.
“…indeed, that all things must work together for my salvation.” The catechism interprets the word “good” in Rom 8:28 to mean “salvation,” i.e., deliverance from condemnation and the consequences of sin. In the providence of God all things work together not just for our general well being but specifically for our salvation. When the writers of the catechism invoked Paul’s language, they did so advisedly. They had a rich experience of the consequence of sin. They had a generous understanding of “all things.” The plague swept through European cities on a regular basis and it came to Heidelberg. Once infected with the plague, the disease moves rapidly through the body (in about 6 days) and its victims rarely survived and death was miserable.
Life expectancy generally in the sixteenth century was rather less than it is today. Infant mortality rates were much higher. Death was a constant companion. Suffering was rarely far away. Heidelberg was famous for its good wine and that was largely because it was safe. It was difficult to find wine that was not poisonous, so Heidelberg’s wine was prized. Most folk subsisted on a black bread. Sanitation as we know it, didn’t exist. Clean water was hard to find. You get the picture. So, when the catechism writers said, “all things,” they were speaking to a suffering people and in the midst of what most of us would regard as unbearable circumstances.
If life is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short” (Thomas Hobbes), from where did they get such confidence in God’s goodness? They derived it from the great acts of redemption in God’s Word. They derived it from the promises of the gospel. They derived it from the incarnation, obedience, death, resurrection, ascension, and ceaseless intercession for his people at the right hand of the Father. The folk who wrote our catechism knew themselves and their need. They weren’t deluded about themselves or their ability to cooperate with grace, to be good enough to stand before God. They were committed to trusting utterly in Christ and his work for them. They also, however, drew confidence from their own personal experience of God’s grace. They were encouraged by the stories of remarkable providences that travelers brought to Heidelberg and by the examples in their own lives to which they could point. They were confident because God the Holy Spirit witnessed to them, working through the preaching of the Gospel and the administration of the sacraments, saying: “Yes, it’s true and it’s true for you.” May God grant you this confidence today and on this Lord’s Day.
How Many Things?
Some folk would have it that to know anything you must know everything. Others would have it that you can’t know anything at all. Because we are Christians. however, we don’t start with our mind in a glass jar, in splendid isolation from all else. We begin as human beings and as creatures made in the divine image. Because we are Christians, we start with God and his revelation to us. We do not have to climb a ladder of being or morality to get to God. He has already come to us. He began speaking to us in the garden. He spoke to us about who we are: image-bearers, analogues of the God who is. He spoke to us about how he made us, as good creatures, able to do all that he commanded. He spoke to us about what we were to do: obey his will, to love him and each other with all our faculties. He also spoke to us about a state of blessedness that transcends the garden which, though lovely, was only provisional. The wonderful thing is that we weren’t broken. We weren’t sinful. We weren’t needy, but still there was more (a consummate state) looming before us.
That is the great mystery of the fall. In the medieval and Roman accounts of the fall, we sinned, in effect, because we are finite. We couldn’t do anything else really. They set up a scheme which some contemporary moralists describe as “maturity.” Implied in this scheme is that the human problem is finitude which has to be remedied by participating in the divine being.
When the Heidelberg Catechism asks, “How many things are necessary for you to know, that in this comfort, you may live and die happily? The answer is not, “We were created finite.” The first answer is: “The greatness of our sin and misery.” In order to appreciate the greatness of our sin and misery one must have a sense of the exaltation of our position and the glory of the potential blessedness that lie before us.
According to at least some of the older Reformed theologians, that blessedness was symbolized by the tree of life. Herman Witsius describes it as a sacrament. By analogy, we might call the tree of the knowledge of good and evil a sacrament of death: “the day you eat therefore you shall surely die.” These are legal words and categories. Adam was in a legal relation to his God. Yes, they were friends, but that friendship was premised on his righteousness and as soon as that righteousness was violated, as soon as Adam made what Caspar Olevianus called a “false covenant” with the Evil One, then the friendship was dissolved and became righteous warfare by God against us and our sin.
It is no small thing then that Paul calls Christ the “second Adam.” It’s one thing for the first Adam, and all we with him, to face a trial and to fail. It’s another thing for the Second Adam to face that trial, for all who believe, bearing the weight of our sin and knowing the consequences of his obedience. For the first Adam, a successful probation would lead to life. For the Second Adam, a successful probation meant suffering and death and only then would he experience the blessedness promised to the obedient.
Give thanks today for the Second Adam who, knowing the greatness of our sin and misery, undertook our obedience that we might have what we do not deserve.
Turning on the television on Sunday morning is probably sufficient reason to become more strictly sabbatarian, but if you persevere you will like see a TV preacher and if he is like most of them, he has a plan for your life. That plan nearly always is about how you can be a better, happier, more fulfilled person. Those are probably good things to know, but why do you need a preacher to learn them? Why can’t you learn them from Dr Phil or Dr Laura, or Judge Judy for that matter? They have lots of good advice.
According to the Heidelberg Catechism there are more important things to know in this world. The first thing we need to know our real condition. It is remarkable how hard it is to learn the truth about anything let alone about ourselves. We are so full of self-deception and deceit that the only way to come to true self-knowledge is for God to give it. Only he can overcome the lies we tell ourselves and to others.
The degree of our natural blindness is such that we don’t even realize how miserable we are. When I was a kid in Nebraska, we played in the snow until we became numb. That was okay because the cold didn’t hurt any more but it carried some risk. Being numb meant that we might actually stay out too long and get too cold and hurt ourselves. That’s the danger of being numb.
Outside of Christ we’re all numb. We’re cold and miserable and we don’t even know it. It’s only when we are beside a thawing fire that we begin to find out how cold we really are. It hurts at first but it’s a good sort of pain. That sensation is the first signal of the truth, of reality breaking through. It’s good to know the truth about ourselves and it’s absolute imperative that we learn the truth about ourselves. The alternative doesn’t bear thinking about.
The tendency in theology before the Reformation, in both the East and West, was to downplay the effects of the fall. The Western church always affirmed unequivocally the fact of the fall and rejected Pelagius as a heretic. We sin because we’re sinners and we became sinners in Adam’s fall. Formally, the western church agreed thus far with Augustine. Most of the church, however, denied Augustine’s conclusions about the extent of the effect of the fall. Most of the western church, almost from the time of Augustine’s death (and even before), tended say, “Yes, we’re sinful, but we’re not so sinful that we cannot do our part, i.e., cooperate with grace.” It was a given in medieval theology God begins the process of justification/sanctification/salvation but that our cooperation with grace was of the essence of condign merit which was said to be essential to justification. According to most medievals, that sanctity is Spirit-wrought makes it condign but that it involves our cooperation makes it meritorious. Most medieval theologians were either semi-Pelagian or semi-Augustinian, depending on the degree to which they thought we are corrupted by sin. Most of the medieval church transformed sin from depravity to “deprivity,” (to coin a term) i.e., the absence of grace or even divinity. There were exceptions. Throughout the entire history of the medieval church (1000 years) there were genuine Augustinians. For example, Gottschalk stood up for a genuinely Augustinian view of sin and grace. In the late medieval period there was a sort of renaissance of Augustine’s doctrines of sin and grace. That neo-Augustinian movement was one of the developments that made the Reformation possible.
The “semi” approach (of whatever sort) to sin and grace, however, remained the dominant view into the sixteenth century. That’s why the Reformation was so remarkable. The Reformation not only turned back to Augustine’s view of sin and divine sovereignty, but it transformed them in significant ways. Still, almost as a soon as the Reformation re-introduced the Augustinian views of sin and grace (mutatis mutandis) versions of the old “semi” and even versions of the old Pelagian errors reared their heads. The Anabaptists rejected the Protestant doctrine of salvation in favor of the the medieval views. Of course, Rome rejected the renewed Augustinian views and even some of the Protestants were uneasy about the confessional Protestant doctrines mainly because they all feared that if justification is said to be completely free then sinners will have no incentive to be good. About 30 years after the Heidelberg Catechism was published, Jacob Arminius began raising serious questions that would help create a movement that would bring back the old view of “grace and cooperation with grace.” Even before the Heidelberg was drafted, however, there were movements within Protestantism do incorporate those ideas, so much so that much of Protestantism was convulsed by a series of arguments over justification, grace, and works in the 1550s.
Thus it is important to notice how clear the catechism is when it says that one of the things we need to know is the “greatness of my sin and misery.” According to the Reformed confession, we are not a little sinful. We’re not “sinful, but not so sinful that we can’t cooperate with grace.” No, we’re terribly sinful. We’re dead in sins and trespasses (Eph 2). According to the HC, our natural inclination after the fall, is to hate God and neighbor. Our natural inclination is to seek our own interests. Our natural inclination is to defy God by setting up idols, by serving those idols, by murder, by theft, by covetousness, by lust, by rejection of authority of all kinds. The fact that we do not act out those impulses is due to the goodness of God’s providence whereby he restrains us from doing all that we might. That’s no credit to us, however. Left to ourselves, absent the benevolent providence of God, Thomas Hobbes’ state of nature would be our daily reality.
The first thing that the revisionists have always done, after Augustine, after Luther, and after Calvin is to downplay the effects of the fall. One of the first things that the Protestants did, which the catechism reaffirms, is to reassert the profundity of human depravity. We can’t do “our part.” If we could, then grace would not be grace. That’s why we have a Savior. He did not make salvation available to those who either “do what lies within them” or to those who “do their part” by cooperating with grace. The only thing that, after the fall, lies within us is sin. We’re so sinful that we can’t do “our part.” The Christian faith is that Jesus earned salvation for all his people and he gives it freely to all of them through faith alone.
“The greatness of my sin and misery.” The English noun, “misery” is probably derived from the Latin verb misereo, “to pity.” The Latin adjective miser means “wretched.” In this phrase “sin and misery” are not synonyms. Rather, in our translation, the noun “misery” (German, Das Elend; Latin, miseria) refers to the consequences of sin. Sin is law breaking. Law breaking has objective and subjective consequences. It shouldn’t be a surprise. God promised: “the day you eat thereof you shall surely die” (Gen 2:17). That is what happened. Where, as his image bearers, we should have entered into a state of objective and subjective blessedness, we actually entered into a state of misery. It is objective because the noun misery describes our state. Apart from grace, regardless of our experience at any given moment, our state is miserable, wretched. Subjectively, “wretched” also describes our experience. If you’re under 30, just wait. If you’re over 30 (depending upon how far over!) you’re finding out about misery first hand. For one thing, the body begins to revolt. When we’re young, by and large, the body is our servant. It does what we want it to do, when we want, the way we want. Increasingly however, as we age, we become servants of our bodies. The body demands more and more time and attention as it begins to rebel and complain and eventually when it begins to work against us. We experience misery in countless other ways (e.g., emotionally, mentally, spiritually). Paul understood this objective and subjective state of misery: “O wretched man that I am!” (Rom 7:24) He connected his state of misery to the “law at work in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within my members” (Rom 7:23). This is the confession of a man who is in touch with reality.
Unless and until we are graciously allowed to see ourselves and our state as they really are, grace holds no interest for us.
“How I am redeemed from all my sins and misery.” The Heidelberg Catechism was written not just to those who profess the Christian faith but to those who actually believe the Christian faith. The writers of the catechism had to assume, for the purposes of writing the catechism, that the hearers/readers of the catechism are united to Christ by true faith (HC 21) and a vital union with Christ.
According to the catechism, and the Reformed faith generally, there is a great difference between profession of faith and true faith. This is a distinction of the greatest importance and one which some seem bent on blurring. Some folk (who call themselves “the Federal Vision”) who are concerned about the ill effects of revivalism and religious subjectivism (as I am) in contemporary Christianity seek to redress the problem by turning to what they call the “objectivity of the covenant.” In their scheme, all baptized persons are said to be in the covenant of grace in very same way. They speak of a “covenantal” election, union with Christ, justification etc. By “covenantal” they mean conditional and temporary. They argue from the example of the temporary national covenant with Israel. Just as God chose the Israelites to be his temporary national people so he “elects” individuals today to a temporary conditional status as Christians which status is said to be retained by faithfulness (trust and obedience). “If,” they say, “we keep our part of the covenant we will be ultimately righteous before God.” Faith is now said to have two parts: trusting and obeying. This, they say, is what God asked of Adam before the fall; what God asked of Abraham after the fall, what God asked of his Son Jesus, and what God asks of us.
Please note how they move from Israel’s status as a national covenantal people with Israel to the baptized person today. Does Scripture do this? Not exactly. Both Paul and the writer to the Hebrews to appeal the example of Israel as the old covenant visible church. There is a distinction to be made here. Israel fulfilled a couple of roles in the history of redemption at the same time, that’s because there have always been two covenants operating in history: works and grace. By making a national covenant with Israel, our Lord re-instituted a picture of the covenant of works that he had made with Adam. Just as Adam was called to obey the law and enter into glory, so national Israel was called to obey and remain the national people of God. As we all learned in catechism class, Israel failed miserably and lost her status as the national people of God. So this re-institution of the covenant of works on a national basis served to direct national Israel to the true Israel of God who would keep the covenant of works perfectly for all the elect.
The covenant of grace, first announced after the fall (Gen 3:14-16) was also re-published during Israel’s national covenant because Israel also served as the visible church under Moses and David. The covenant of grace was unconditional. It was temporarily administered through the national covenant but which, before the national covenant, during the national covenant, and after the fulfillment of the national covenant, included folk from every nation, tribe, and tongue (Rev 5:9). This covenant is a free promise of righteousness by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone.
These are two distinct covenants operating on two distinct principles.
The proposed revisions of the Reformed faith, however, blur the distinction between these two covenants and between these two principles.
With just a moment’s reflection, you can see right away how different this proposed revision of the Reformed faith is from what the Heidelberg Catechism actually says. The catechism says “How I am redeemed from all my sins and misery.” The catechism does not say that “how I am placed in a temporary relation to Christ and his salvation conditioned upon grace and my cooperation with grace.” It does not say, “How I could be redeemed from my all my sins and misery.” The catechism speaks of our redemption as present reality. According to the catechism I am now presently redeemed.
In the history of the Christian church there was a covenant theology that did place Christians by baptism into a state of grace conditioned upon grace and cooperation with grace that described faith as trusting and obeying and righteousness as a future possibility but never a present reality. The medieval church taught this system for a millennium and the whole Protestant church rejected that system as one man.
Remember the question: “How many things are necessary for you to know that in this comfort you may live and die happily?”
It is not possible to live happily in a conditional temporary covenant wherein my righteousness is contingent upon my performance of the terms of the covenant. It is impossible because of our sin and misery. Because of sin we’re not able or even willing to keep the terms of the covenant.
That’s why we have an perfectly obedient and wholly trustworthy Savior who performed all the conditions of the covenant of works and Israel’s national for us.
That’s why faith, in justification, is not “trusting and obeying” but “a certain knowledge and a hearty trust.”
Works and grace are two different systems (1 Cor 11:5).
They are two different religions operating on two different principles.
The Heidelberg Catechism doesn’t confuse them and it premises our assurance on Jesus’ fulfillment of the covenant of works for us.
The second thing that a believer must know is that “I am redeemed from all my sins and misery.” We do not confess that “believers might be redeemed, if they do their part, if they cooperate with grace.” We do not confess that “believers are redeemed, but they could lose their redemption.” We do not confess “Jesus made it possible for believers to be redeemed, if they do their part.” All these alternatives to the theology and language of the catechism are destructive to assurance because each of them subtly changes two of the terms of the second thing that believers must know.
First, the alternatives each redefine the noun “believers.” According to the catechism, if one is a believer, then one is united to Christ by grace alone, through faith alone. That union is created by God the Spirit and is irrevocable. True faith is nothing but a certain knowledge and a hearty trust that Christ has kept the law for me, has died for me, was raised for me and lives and intercedes for me. True faith necessarily produces sanctity, but it isn’t itself sanctity, at least not as regards justification.
The second revision that is being proposed by some is the addition of the conditional clause, “if I do my part” or “if I cooperate with grace.” The first form is more blatantly Pelagian (denying grace). The second is more subtle. It is not openly Pelagian. Indeed, it was universally held and taught in the medieval church. Before Augustine died it became the predominant view in the Western (Latin) church. Most all of the medieval theologians taught that we are sanctified (and hence justified) by grace and cooperation with grace.
One problem with this formulation is that it also subtly downplays the power and effect of sin. It says, in effect, “I am sinful, but not so sinful that I cannot cooperate with grace.” Another problem with this formulation is that it introduces a contingency into the doctrine and justification that destroys any ground of assurance of justification. Who can honestly say, “I have cooperated with grace”? Really? Perhaps a Wesleyan might think that one has achieved entire perfection, but no real Augustinian, Calvinist could think that anyone in this life could think that he could achieve entire perfection.
Apart from perfect cooperation, apart from perfect righteousness how could anyone hope to stand before an entirely holy and righteous God?
The medieval theologians understood that problem and because they all held that, in effect, “God says what he says (e.g., “righteous”) because we are intrinsically what we are,” they had to set up a system whereby we can become intrinsically righteous. In other words, they all assumed that God can only say of us, “righteous” if we really, actually, intrinsically are righteous. Thus they had to set up a scheme where this could be. They set up a scheme whereby we can accumulate sufficient (condign or “worthy”) merit in order to be intrinsically just.
Knowing, however, that even with the help of prevenient (“first coming”) grace, we don’t accumulate sufficient righteousness and condign merit, they also set up a scheme of congruent (or imputed) merit. In this scheme, God is said to recognize when one has done “what lies within him” (either with grace or without) and therefore he has pledged to impute worth to our best efforts.
Even so, all medieval theologians, including those neo-Augustinian theologians in the late medieval period recognized that virtually no one achieves perfect righteousness in this life. That reality necessitated logically, a period of purification during an intermediate state after death known as purgatory. For all medieval Christians, righteousness with God was thought to be a process that would not be culminated in this life.
Thus, the pilgrimage of the medieval Christian was beset with uncertainty. “Have I done enough? “Have I cooperated with grace? Have I done my best?” The honest answer to these questions must be no. Indeed, the medieval church agreed (and Trent made magisterial Roman doctrine) that assurance of righteousness before God, in this life, was impossible apart from special revelation. Doubt was of the essence of faith. That’s why the Council of Trent (1547) declared that anyone who says that faith is “confidence in the divine mercy” is eternally condemned. No, for the medieval church and for Rome, faith is cooperation with grace and grace was a sort of medicine (they frequently used metaphor of medicine to describe grace) with which the sinner is infused on the path to becoming a saint.
When, however the the Heidelberg pastors confessed, “I am redeemed from all my sins and misery,” they rejected the entire medieval religion of “grace and cooperation of grace” and the religion of uncertainty and purgatory in favor of pure grace (defined as divine approval) which does not just make righteousness possible or contingent upon cooperation by sinners, but it actually accomplishes righteousness definitively, in this life, so that the sinner, though he remains intrinsically sinful, can nevertheless know that his is righteous before God on the basis of a perfect righteousness.
To be sure, that righteousness has been accomplished “outside of us” (extra nos) for us (pro nobis) by Christ alone. He accomplished righteousness and the whole of his perfect righteousness is credited (imputed, reckoned) to all who do nothing but believe.
There have been numerous attempts to resurrect the old “grace and cooperation” with grace scheme. The Arminians tried it in the late 16th and early 17th centuries and it has persisted since. Richard Baxter tried it in the 17th century. The neo-nomians tried it during the Marrow Controversy (18th century) and moralists have tried it repeatedly since and they trying it again today (in the Federal Vision). Some folk even say that “grace and cooperation with grace” toward eventual righteousness is Reformed theology. Well, it isn’t, no according to the Reformed confessions.
Some groups, who are Reformed in other respects, have, however, resurrected the notion that certainty of righteousness is dependent upon a special revelation. I’ve known folks who were Reformed who, nevertheless denied that it was possible for them to have “assurance” in this life apart from “the blessing.” Some of these folk won’t come to the Lord’s Table until they have “the blessing.” I’ve heard stories of ostensibly Reformed congregations where only a few (the “select of the elect”) come to the table, where only those few are permitted to come to the table because they have succeeded in convincing the elders that they have had “the blessing.” Other predestinarian evangelicals speak about the “sealing” of the Spirit (e.g., Martyn Lloyd-Jones) in similar ways.
Reformed theology rejects the second blessing theology whether of the medievals or the modern evangelicals or the Reformed pietists. These errors are as destructive of assurance as the doctrine of “grace and cooperation with grace.” How do you know when you’ve had “the blessing”? Who gets to say what constitutes “the blessing?” What if I think I’ve had “the blessing” and you don’t think so? Who thinks it’s a good idea to chuck the biblical, confessional, and Reformed doctrine of revelation in favor of predestinarian Pentecostalism? Not I and, more importantly, not the Heidelberg Catechism
The basis of one’s assurance is neither the degree to which one has cooperated with grace nor a mystical, extra-canonical revelation that, “I am elect.” The basis of assurance is the promise of Christ, “who ever believes in him shall never perish.” Reformed theology does not ask believers to reckon, “Am I elect?” Reformed theology asks one to reckon, “Do I believe?”
The instrument for receiving the promise is neither cooperation with grace or a mystical, extra-canonical revelation, but true faith as defined by HC 21. As computer folk say, this is a “binary operation.” Relative to righteousness before God, faith either exists or it doesn’t. There are no degrees. There are degrees of sanctity, but righteousness before God results in sanctity, not the reverse. The sole object of true faith is Christ alone (solo Christo) and his saving work for sinners.
The second thing every believer must know to live and die happily is that I AM redeemed. Who ever knows the greatness of his sin and misery and trusts that the promise of the gospel is true is redeemed.
If you’re waiting for “the blessing,” stop it. Believe and you are righteous.
If you’re trying to attain righteousness by cooperating with grace, give it up. It’s not happening in this life. Jesus does not merely make salvation available to those who do their part. He earned it for his people and he gives it freely to all who stop working and who rest in him and receive him and his righteousness through faith alone.
“How I am redeemed from all my sins and misery.” It is fashionable now to suggest that we need to move beyond the old idea of a substitutionary atonement. Actually, the substitutionary atonement has been under assault for rather a long time. The old German liberals in the 19th century used to describe the doctrine of the substitutionary atonement as “slaughterhouse theology.” Before the rise of higher criticism, the 17th-century rationalists following Hugo Grotius denied that the atonement was substitutionary. Most recently some leaders of the Emerging Movement e.g., Steve Chalke has said recently,
The fact is that the cross isn’t a form of cosmic child abuse—a vengeful Father, punishing his Son for an offence he has not even committed [as the doctrine of penal substitution makes it out to be]. Understandably, both people inside and outside of the Church have found this twisted version of events morally dubious and a huge barrier to faith. Deeper than that, however, is that such a concept stands in total contradiction to the statement “God is love”. If the cross is a personal act of violence perpetrated by God towards humankind but borne by his Son, then it makes a mockery of Jesus’ own teaching to love your enemies and to refuse to repay evil with evil (Steve Chalke and Alan Mann, The Lost Message of Jesus (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2003), 182-183; for more on the EM see Justin Taylor’s helpful introductory survey of the EM here
Those who are advocating this approach to the atonement are not simply attacking one “theory” of the atonement (as the did the liberals at the time of the 1924 Auburn Affirmation) but, as Don Carson says, they are attacking the very foundation of the gospel itself.
I have to say, as kindly but as forcefully as I can, that to my mind, if words mean anything, both McLaren and Chalke have largely abandoned the gospel. Perhaps their rhetoric and enthusiasm have led them astray and they will prove willing to reconsider their published judgments on these matters and embrace biblical truth more holistically than they have been doing in their most recent works. But if not, I cannot see how their own words constitute anything less than a drift toward abandoning the gospel itself. . . . (Don Carson, Becoming Conversant, 186-87)
It’s true that Scripture uses more than one metaphor for describing the nature and purpose of Christ’s death and it’s probably true that, in reaction to the liberal rejection of the doctrine of the (penal) substitutionary atonement, fundamentalists (the usual breeding ground of EM types) and conservatives have focused almost entirely this one metaphor or image.
It is also true, however, that EM types do not seem simply to be expanding the range of metaphors or images by which we may describe the nature and intent of Christ’s work. There is a widespread rejection of the assumptions that lie behind the Biblical doctrine of the atonement. It is widely assumed today that the only category of analysis that we may use today to describe divine-human relations is the relational category. There is a widespread rejection of legal (forensic) or commercial (e.g., accounting) categories of analysis. The rejection of these ways of speaking and thinking lie behind the current discomfort with confessional Protestant doctrine of justification. It lies behind the current move to re-cast Protestant doctrine of justification as a matter solely of union with Christ or even theosis (divinization).
Nevertheless, the Bible does teach unequivocally that we have been “redeemed,” i.e., that we have been purchased by Christ (e.g., 1 Cor 6:20, “You were bought with a price.”) Before Anselm (11th and 12th centuries) it was often held that God had to pay a ransom to the devil (think of Aslan’s death in the Chronicles of Narnia) as if God was in debt to the Evil One. Anselm helped us to understand, however, that the debt was not God’s but ours. We were made in righteousness with the ability to obey God. When we sinned against God we incurred a debt to the righteousness of God that had to be satisfied. Since it was humans that sinned, it must be humans that satisfy God’s justice. There is much more to say here but let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves.
We confess that believers have been “redeemed,” i.e., that we have been purchased, bought, delivered from slavery to death and sin. We are owned by another, namely our Redeemer Jesus Christ. Another key assumption behind the doctrine of the atonement is a denial of human autonomy relative to God. Contemporary critics of the Reformed doctrine of the atonement, that Jesus died as the substitute for his people, that he paid the penalty owed by all his people, that by his death he propitiated (turned away) the righteous wrath of God, focus on these aspects of the atonement as “child abuse” or as distasteful, but we all work with these sorts of categories every day. Are the critics of this language saying that we cannot speak this way? Can they make the case that the Scriptures do not or are they asking us simply to discard this category of Biblical language? Is it really the substitutionary language that troubles them or is it the implicit denial of our autonomy (i.e., that I am a law unto myself).
At least old liberals were fairly straightforward about their denial of the atonement. They were children of the Enlightenment and believed that reasonable, modern, enlightened folk could no longer speak about divine-human relations this way. The EM critics of substitutionary atonement (who pose as critics of Modernity!) seem to hold similar views for similar reasons. They want to be regarded as hip, avant-garde critics of Modernity but one wonders if they aren’t just rationalist-modernist retreads?
The third thing that one must know “that in this comfort you may live and die happily?” is ” how I am to be thankful to God for such redemption.”
At first, one of the strangest aspects of the current justification controversy (beyond the fact that it exists! Are the Reformed confessions really so hard to understand?) is that the critics of that doctrine which the Reformed churches confess to be the biblical doctrine of justification seem to have rejected one of the most important premises of the confessional doctrine.
The first part of that premise is that sanctity is neither a ground nor instrument of justification. The second part of the premise is that the sanctity is only and always the fruit of justification, that it flows out of thankfulness for our justification. This idea is essential to the Protestant doctrine of justification (yes, Virginia, there is a pan-Protestant doctrine of justification, but that’s another post).
On reflection, however, one remembers that there is a long tradition of rejecting thankfulness as the source of the Christian life. One of the Roman criticisms of the Reformation was that thankfulness is not enough, that it doesn’t provide sufficient motivation for sanctity (godliness). That’s why Rome teaches that one is justified because and to the degree one is sanctified. According to Rome, justification is a quid pro quo, it is a recognition of the fact that God has infused a one with grace and that one has cooperated sufficiently with that grace. In other words, according to Rome, justification is a recognition of intrinsic or inherent righteousness. According to Rome, God says what he says because you are what you are.
According to Rome, to make sanctity the fruit of justification and thankfulness the motive for sanctity just won’t work. If they don’t build sanctity into the process of justification (Protestants don’t speak of a process of justification; we speak of a process of sanctification and a punctilliar declaration of justification) then folk will not have sufficient reason to strive toward godliness.
The revisionists, moralists, and critics of the confessional Protestant doctrine of justification either don’t understand what we mean by gratitude/thankfulness, or they’ve succumbed to the spirit of rationalism. If so, they’ve given in to the temptation to make the faith just a little more reasonable by re-introducing the quid pro quo back into the Christian doctrine of justification. If God says, “Righteous” about those who are still intrinsically sinful, then why should anyone be good?
Well, that isn’t just a Romanist question. It was also the Socinian and Anabaptist and even a Remonstrant question. It’s the question that rationalist moralists always ask. The same spirit which asks, “how can God do this?” is the same spirit that will eventually ask, “Say, is God really one in three persons?” or “is Jesus really one person with two natures?” The logic in inevitable.
Of course, this is essentially the same objection which Paul anticipated in Romans 6. If it is the case that, where sin abounded, grace abounded more, then perhaps we should sin even more so that grace might abound more? You know the answer: NO! Why not? How can Paul escape the logic of his own argument? The answer is that there’s nothing to escape. The answer is that the objection assumes a false premise and neglects and implied premise in Paul’s argument.
The objection assumes that Paul (and the Heidelberg Catechism) has made justification into a mechanical operation and that, with the machine having worked once, one can keep turning the handle, as it were. Paul rejects this premise. Instead, Paul assumes another premise, namely that anyone who is actually justified by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, would be horrified by such a notion — that a justified person would take his gracious justification as license to sin. Why? Because he assumes that we understand that sinners are justified by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone. That the same Spirit who has united the sinner to Christ by faith is also operating within that sinner to sanctify him. That being the case (as he continues to argue in Romans 6) it is impossible that one whom the Spirit has united to Christ by faith alone, cannot live as if nothing has changed. A believer is united to Christ in his death, and therefore has been freed from the reigning power of sin and has been united to Christ in his resurrection and therefore the principle of new life is operating within the believer.
Thus, when the catechism “how I am to be thankful to God for such redemption” it is a rich (as opposed to poor) definition of thankfulness. The catechism will go on to elaborate on the ground of thankfulness and the power of thankfulness and the structure of thankfulness, but it always assumes the Pauline doctrine of union with Christ wrought by the Spirit whenever it speaks of the Christian life being motivated by gratitude.
The Protestant scheme of justification answers another objection I’ve heard, i.e., that the confessional doctrine of justification reduces sanctity to a second blessing. I respond by saying that this is a false dichotomy (second blessing v moralism). Sanctity is, if you will, the natural, organic result of justification. This is how the Scriptures themselves speak about the Christian life. This is why Paul uses the metaphor of “fruit” (Gal 5) to describe the Christian life. Belgic Confession Art. 24 speaks at some length about how sanctity is the fruit, i.e., the logically and morally necessary result of justification. When my tangerine tree produces tangerines, is that second blessing? No. Frankly, that’s just stupid. It’s what tangerine trees do: produce fruit. If my tangerine tree didn’t produce fruit then either it’s not a tangerine tree (it might have been labeled incorrectly at the nursery) or it’s dead. Either way, if there’s no fruit, then I don’t have a living tangerine tree. The fruit, however, as the Belgic Confession hastens to add, doesn’t make the tree a tree. The tree makes the fruit. If we say that the fruit makes the tree, then we’ve gone back to the Roman definition of faith in the act of justification, that faith is formed or made a reality by acts of love (fides formata caritate) or by our cooperation with grace, which the Protestants regarded as “works” in the Pauline sense of the term.
There is one other issue. In place of the “guilt, grace, gratitude” scheme of the catechism (which, as Paul Althaus noted decades ago is the pan-Protestant doctrine) some are proposing an elaborate doctrine of “union with Christ.” In this re-construction of the Reformed doctrine of union, we’re not justified not by faith alone but by faith and by Spirit-wrought sanctity which is said to be the result of union with Christ. I’ve written on the HB at some length about about this re-construction of the doctrine of union with Christ so I won’t do so here. It’s enough to say that justification through sanctity is justification through sanctity whether it’s fides formata or “Spirit-wrought” sanctity is a form of moralism. After all, some of the proponents of this scheme have even adapted the Roman doctrine of a two-stage justification whereby one is initially justified in this life (according to Rome and some Federal Visionaries it’s in baptism and according to the “unionistas” it’s sola fide) and finally (wholly, according to Rome and partly according to the “unionistas”) justified by intrinsic sanctity at the judgment.
- Paul doesn’t know anything about a two-stage doctrine of justification (“having been justified” and “having now been justified” Rom 5:1, 9). Believers are now as fully justified as we shall ever be;
- This is another attempt to “rig” the game, i.e., a way to get folk to behave themselves, by building sanctity into justification;
- The Protestants distinguish between a) justification as God’s declaration that a sinner is constituted righteous on the ground of Christ’s righteousness imputed and received through faith receiving and resting alone and b) vindication as the recognition of what was and is true of the justified. James speaks of “vindication” in James 2 and we confess that we shall be vindicated, not declared finally justified, at the judgment.
- Any two-stage doctrine of justification is necessarily and ironically a second-blessing scheme. In the confessional and historic Reformed doctrine, believers are justified now. In the “two-stage” scheme, we’re provisionally justified now and finally justified then. What’s that if not a second blessing?
When the Reformed churches adopted the Heidelberg Catechism, they knew what they were doing: consciously rejecting moralism (justification by sanctification) in all its forms and rationalism in all its forms, however seductive it might seem.
Christ, to whom we are united by the Spirit, is the power of the Christian life. The motive of the Christian life is thankfulness. We don’t have to choose between these things as we consider the source of the Christian life. When the catechism says “how we are to be thankful for such redemption” it is focusing on the existential, personal, motive for the Christian life. The catechism will turn to our union with Christ later on. Why then, does the catechism start with thankfulness?
The first part of the answer is the medieval setting in which the catechism was written. I know that some folk get narcolepsy anytime I use the word “medieval.” Don’t go to sleep just yet. Can you imagine a religion in which the chief motivations for piety are guilt and fear? I guess you can. That was the medieval religion: Grace and guilt. That’s the religion of much of fundamentalism. It’s the religion of all the moralists (e.g., the covenant nomists et al).
By contrast, the Protestant religion was guilt, grace, and gratitude.
Thankfulness is not a theme to which most of us probably pay attention in Scripture, but it’s a major theme for the Apostle Paul. As part of his law-preaching prosecution of human sinfulness in Rom 1:21 Paul uses the expressions “glorify God” (doxazo) and “give thanks” (eucharisteo) as synonyms. To give thanks is to glorify God. In this case he uses them as part of the first use of the law. It is a fundamental human obligation, as image bearers, to acknowledge God as our Creator and to glorify him as such. As fallen people, in whom the image has been defaced, we refuse to acknowledge God.
In Rom 6:16 Paul says that we are necessarily slaves either to God or to sin. If we sin, we are slaves to sin and death. v. 17: “But thanks (charis) be to God, you who were slaves of sin have become have obeyed from the heart…” The noun for thanks here is the same noun used for “grace.” In other words, there is an integral relation between “thanks” and “grace.” Only those who have received the grace, i.e., undeserved favor, of God are those who are thankful. When Paul says, “thanks to God” is reflecting a basic Christian impulse.
Imagine that you, in a fit of rage, wantonly and violently and irrationally destroyed your neighbor’s car. Imagine that your neighbor was, for the purposes of this story, perfectly innocent. What does your neighbor owe you? Justice! He owes you prosecution to the full extent of the law. If, however, he fixed his car and gave you a 7-series BMW that would be grace. What should your response be? Should it not be humility and profound gratitude? Would you not think of your neighbor’s wonderful graciousness every time you thought of or saw that BMW? Of course you would! Wouldn’t that sense of gratitude color your life and relation to your neighbor and everyone else?
Of course Christians have committed crimes that are even more inexplicable than this. We violated God’s law when we had been constituted righteous and holy. We forfeited glory for what? As Christians, are the recipients of a grace that far transcends an automobile. As Paul says, we were slaves to sin and now we’ve been made free in Christ.
Paul’s doctrine of the Christian life might be described as a doctrine of thanks:
“Thanks (charis) be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Rom 7:25) Even though we continue to struggle with sin, “there is now therefore no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” (Rom 8:1). “Thanks (charis) be to God who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor 15:57). “Thanks (charis) be to God who, in Christ, always leads us in triumphal procession….” (2 Cor 2:14) “Thanks (charis) be to God for his inexpressible gift!” (2 Cor 9:15).
For Paul, thankfulness is not a light matter. It is a powerful motive for the Christian life. It is a recognition of who we are and what God in Christ has done for us, and what the Spirit is doing within us, and who we are now in Christ.
“How can we who died to sin still live in it?”
With Christ helping us, we won’t.
If I may start with something I posted a few weeks ago: The English noun, “misery” is probably derived from the Latin verb misereo, “to pity.” The Latin adjective miser means “wretched.” In our translation, the noun “misery” (German, Das Elend; Latin, miseria) refers to the consequences of sin.
So, how does one become aware of one’s misery? Our catechism is unequivocal and completely clear: Out of the law of God.
In the context of the Reformation there was no other answer. The confessional Protestants (Lutheran and Reformed) were united in their conviction that there are two grammatical moods throughout Scripture: “do” and “done” or law and gospel. The Protestant recovery of what has come to be known as the law/gospel hermeneutic was essential to the Reformation.
For a millennium before the Reformation, the church was agreed that there is only one sort of word in Scripture: law. The church distinguished between the “old” (Moses) law and the “new” (Christ) law. The only difference between the old and new laws was said to be the degree of grace available to aid believers in their obedience to the law. According to the medieval church, there’s more grace under the new law than under the old.
The Protestants rejected this entire scheme. They read the Bible to contain two kinds of words throughout: law and gospel. According to the Protestants the law says “do this and live.” The law requires perfect obedience and righteousness. The law is utterly unforgiving. The gospel, on the other hand, is a different kind of word. The gospel promises what shall be done and declares that which has been done for Christ’s people. The gospel says, “the seed of the woman will crush the serpent.” The gospel says, “I will give you rest.” The gospel says, “For God so loved the world….”
This distinction is the only way to understand this answer of the catechism. The catechism does not say that the gospel teaches us our misery because that is neither the function nor the nature of the gospel. The gospel is good news! If someone announces to you that you’ve been given unconditionally a million dollars, you probably wouldn’t go into a funk of self-loathing. You would probably go to dinner at a nice restaurant, make some investments, and give your pastor a raise. That’ the natural reaction to good news.
If, on the other hand, someone comes to your door to remind you of something dreadful you did back in 1957, something you very much wanted to forget, something you tried to bury into your subconsciousness, something shameful, that would not be good news. That would be bad news. That would be a stark reminder that you are still guilty, that the debt remains, that the potential for punishment lingers.
That’s the difference between good news and bad news. It is clearly the latter that teaches us our misery and our need.
Tragically, in reaction to Dispensationalism, many Reformed folk seem to have rejected the law/gospel distinction. This rejection has been in play long enough that a good number of folk don’t even seem to be aware of it. More than a few people have said to me, “I don’t believe that law/gospel stuff. It’s Lutheran.”
Well, the law/gospel distinction is Lutheran AND Reformed. I understand that some folk mistakenly think that only Lutherans confess the law/gospel distinction. The idea that only Lutherans hold the law/gospel distinction would surprise the many Reformed theologians and ministers who have taught it, e.g., the principal commentator on the catechism Zacharias Ursinus (1534-83):
Q.36 What distinguishes law and gospel?
A: The law contains a covenant of nature begun by God with men in creation, that is, it is a natural sign to men, and it requires of us perfect obedience toward God. It promises eternal life to those keeping it, and threatens eternal punishment to those not keeping it. In fact, the gospel contains a covenant of grace, that is, one known not at all under nature. This covenant declares to us fulfillment of its righteousness in Christ, which the law requires, and our restoration through Christ’s Spirit. To those who believe in him, it freely promises eternal life for Christ’s sake (Larger Catechism, Q. 36).
Calvin’s successor in Geneva, Theodore Beza (1534-1605) said:
We divide this Word into two principal parts or kinds: the one is called the ‘Law,’ the other the ‘Gospel.’ For all the rest can be gathered under the one or other of these two headings…Ignorance of this distinction between Law and Gospel is one of the principal sources of the abuses which corrupted and still corrupt Christianity (The Christian Faith, 1558).
I could go on, but these two quotations speak for the entire Reformed tradition. Our theologians repeated this distinction again and again. If you want to read more about this, there is a chapter on it in Covenant, Justification, and Pastoral Ministry.
When we understand the distinction between law and gospel we may understand more clearly why we confess that it is the law, not the gospel, that teaches us our misery.
Q. 4 of the catechism asks, “What does the Law of God require of us?”
First, note how the catechism thinks about the law. It does not ask, “What does the law of God give us?” nor does it ask, “What does the law of God do for us?” but rather “what does the law of God require?” (German: erfordert; Latin: postulat). There’s no ambiguity in the verb “to require” in the English or Latin translations or the German original. The German means “to demand” as does the Latin.
The use of this verb is significant. It signals again how the Reformed churches view the law in its first or pedagogical use. Indeed, even if we think of the law in its third or normative use it still never does anything but demand. The law is what it is. It reflects the divine nature. God is what he is (Exod 3:14). He is immutably holy and righteous. He never changes. His holiness and justice never change. His demand for utter justice and holiness is relentless, as it ought to be.
Getting this right is not easy. There has always been a temptation to downplay the demands of the law. Ironically, the downplaying of the demands of the law doesn’t always come from the antinomians, i.e., those who deny the abiding validity of the moral law. Rather, it comes just as often from those who want Christians to obey the law. The move to soften the demands of the law or to ignore them altogether usually come in recognition (implicit or explicit) of our inability to keep the law perfectly. Rather than do what Christians ought to do, seek a perfect law keeper, the moralists, whether Roman or “Protestant,” who want us to be justified by being sanctified take the sting out of the law by implying or saying that the law doesn’t really mean what it seems to say: “cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything written in the book of the law.” They say, “We can’t do it. It isn’t just for God to demand of us what we can’t do. Therefore God must not really demand it.” Of course the minor (second) premise is false. It’s a rationalist (i.e., man-made) premise. God’s Word never says anything about the law relative to justification (righteousness before God) except: “do this and live.”
The paradox of seeming to affirm the law while actually denying or softening it so that we can seem to keep it is not new. Jesus accused the Pharisees of doing exactly this. They had their own “fence around the law” whereby they replaced God’s law with their own traditions and excused themselves from actually having to obey God’s law as it stands. So they could plot the murder of Jesus while posing as righteous men. Thus Jesus called them “whitewashed tombs.” Indeed they were.
The medieval church did this in a variety of ways. On the one hand, the medieval church portrayed God as a righteous and fearsome judge. On the other hand, however, the medievals sent the signal that, “well, God doesn’t really demand perfection.” God was sometimes portrayed as a genial Irish priest (e.g. Father Flannigan of Boys Town – see the Mickey Rooney film) who knows that deep down you’re really a good boy/girl but you just had a tough go. This was the effect of the doctrine of congruent merit by which God was said to impute worthiness (merit) to one’s best efforts (“to those who do what lies within them, God denies not grace.”)
Remarkably, some Reformed folk have resuscitated a version of the doctrine of congruent merit, apparently entirely ignorant of the history of medieval theology and the Reformation’s categorical and vehement rejection of it. They have it that Christians are in a temporary, conditional covenant whereby God doesn’t really demand perfect righteousness for justification but looks upon our best efforts as if they were perfect.
Q. 4 of the catechism was part of the Reformed rejection of the scheme of congruent merit and the revised version being promulgated by revisionists.
In case you aren’t sure, God is not a genial Irish priest.
The wages of sin is death.
Yes Virginia, there is no such thing as congruent merit. God’s righteousness demands utter moral and legal perfection.
To paraphrase the milk commercial? “Got perfect righteousness?”
Christ teaches us in sum, Matt 22: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, you shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” (Matt 22:38, 39, 40).
The Reformed churches have always recognized that the law is really very simple: love God with all your faculties and your neighbor as yourself. That’s it. Easy, right? Well, not exactly. This is, in effect, what we were called to do in the garden, love God utterly and love one another. Having failed to keep this law, it was re-stated in a much more elaborate, historically conditioned, temporary form for the Israelite national covenant. The moral law, however, remained constant: love God and neighbor. This is the sum of the law expressed under the New Covenant by our Lord himself. It can be expressed in the “10 Words” (the Decalogue) or in just these few words from Matt 22.
It’s worth noting that though the law is cast in terms of “love,” it law requires total fidelity and obedience. It’s substantially the same as that expressed in Gal 3:10, “Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything written in the book of the law.”
There is a logical order, love God then neighbor. The latter is like the former. The latter flows from the former. Without the former, the latter is impossible. Without love of neighbor, love of God cannot be said (James 2) to exist.
We (all image bearers in all places and times) owe this love to God and neighbor as a matter of natural obligation.
It’s also worth noting that this expression of law also entails a certain view of human beings. We are image-bearers created with faculties (heart, mind — I take soul and strength to be cumulative). We are intellective creatures and affective creatures. All our thought life and everything we love must reflect love of God.
As God’s image bearers we owe total devotion of these faculties to God and then to neighbor.
No exceptions. This sobering realization should give us pause before we speak glibly about “love” and about being absorbed with God, at least apart from Christ.
How did you do today? Are you ready to stand before a righteous God on the basis of your love for God and neighbor?
“No for I am prone by nature to hate God and my neighbor.”
Q. 5 of the Heidelberg Catechism asks a question the answer to which seems to be obvious. The answer is obvious if one shares the catechism’s (and Scripture’s) assumption about the results of the fall. In the history of Christianity, not everyone has shared the catechism’s view of the consequences of the fall. There are three views about how sinful we are. 1) Pelagianism says that we are not sinners until we sin, that Adam set a bad example for us that we can choose not to follow; 2) Semi-Pelagianism says that we sinned in Adam but we not so sinful that we cannot cooperate with grace; 3) Augustinianism (and the view of the Reformation) says that we sinned in Adam and the consequences were, as God said they would be, deadly. We are unable to do anything toward redemption. We are not even able to cooperate with grace. This is our understanding of Rom 1-3; 1 John 1:8, 10, and Eph 2:1-3. The wages of sin is death. The Black Knight is wrong. It’s not “just a flesh wound.” The fall inflicted a mortal wound.
The Augustinian and Reformed (and confessional Protestant generally) account of the effects of the fall not only distinguishes us from some of the Fathers and from much of the medieval church (both East and West), but also from much of evangelicalism since the 18th century. Pelagianism seems pretty obviously false on its face and indeed few folk have had the nerve to say, “Right, Adam no relation to us really. He didn’t represent me. His actions had no direct consequences for me. I become a sinner only when I choose to sin, therefore I am, in effect, Adam.”
More regularly folk have said, “Well, it’s not as bad as all that. Sure in Adam’s fall sinned we all, but after all, we’re only human. We had concupiscence before the fall — and needed grace even then to control it — and we need grace after the fall. Yes it was bad, not not so bad that we can’t do our part.”
This second approach is much more seductive because it seems to acknowledge the fall but it also mitigates it. It makes the whole thing just a little less offensive and a little more manageable and reasonable.
The problem is that the fall wasn’t the least bit reasonable. We were created good and righteous and holy. There was no reason we had to fall. Scripture (and the Reformed confession) knows nothing of concupiscence (lust) before the fall. We needed no “grace” before the fall because there was nothing wrong with us before the fall.
There is a great contrast in our states before and fall the fall and it is a great mistake to flatten out the difference. Before the fall we alive, though not glorified yet, and after we were “dead.” After the fall, we became unable to obey. All our faculties were affected by sin. We became corrupt in all our parts. Our first, natural inclination became to love self rather than our Creator and our neighbor. Our first inclination (habitus) became to hate God and his law and the truth of this understanding is confirmed by the story of human history immediately after the fall. Think of Cain. Think of the chaos that seems to have enveloped humanity in the years after the fall. Life really did begin to be “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and (in some cases anyway) short.”
This approach to the nature and effects of the fall explains why the confessional Protestant churches have been so insistent on the graciousness of justification. We are sinners. We are not able to help ourselves. We need grace. Grace isn’t just assistance for the weakened (that was the medieval and Arminian view). It is salvation for the lost.
This approach also helps explain why we say what we do about the law and about justification. Failure to uphold this confession of the effects of sin also explains why moralists always say what they do. More about this next time.
6. Did God create man thus wicked and perverse?
No, but God created man good and after His own image, that is, in righteousness and true holiness, that he might rightly know God his Creator, heartily love Him, and live with Him in eternal blessedness, to praise and glorify Him.
The Reformed Churches are known for teaching that God controls all that happens. When we think about salvation, this doctrine of divine sovereignty is a great comfort. It means that I did not save myself and my salvation is in the safe and good hands of our all-powerful and gracious Father. When it comes to accounting for sin and evil, the doctrine of divine sovereignty can be a little more difficult, especially for those whose theology begins and ends with divine sovereignty.
To be sure, the problems of sin and evil are no less severe for those who deny divine sovereignty. The idea that God voluntarily withdraws his control or only occasionally exercises control over history faces huge biblical-theological problems. Who gets to say when God is exercising control? If God’s decree does not comprehend everything, then is there some sort of vacuum in the universe? Does God get “responsibility” only for the things we like but has no relation to the things we don’t like? What if the things we like and dislike change? The idea that God is naturally incapable of ordering all things according to his will is even more bizarre. Did God speak creation into existence? It seems so. If that is the case, why is he incapable of ordering his creation? Did things “get away” from him? Is he incompetent? Where, without employing the most tortured exegesis, would one get the idea from Scripture that God is either unable or unwilling to sovereignly arrange things according to his good pleasure?
These preliminary questions are enough to suggest that there is no great advantage in abandoning the confessional Reformed view, whatever its difficulties.
So, if God is sovereign and the fall happened, how is God not morally responsible for the fall and it’s consequences? In other words, if God is sovereign, how can he hold us morally liable for sin and evil?
There are at least two parts to the answer. One part of the answer is in Rom 9:19-22:
You will say to me then, “Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?” 20 But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, “Why have you made me like this?” 21 Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump done vessel for honored use and another for dishonorable use? 22 What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience evessels of wrath fprepared for destruction?…
Paul says that we lack standing to question God about his ways. The truth is that we’re not really able to understand the solution to the problem of evil, at least not as God understands it. Insofar as we are able to think about it, there is no utterly satisfactory answer. There’s no way to make the problem go away or to eliminate the mystery.
That doesn’t mean that there is nothing to say. We do have something to say. First, as already suggested, it doesn’t help to deny God’s sovereign control of all things. Second, we should do as Paul and recognize our moral and metaphysical limitations. We’re not God. Third, we can mitigate the problem a bit by doing as the Scriptures and the catechism do, by looking at the nature of the creation and fall itself.
One part of the Reformed way to approach the problem of sin and evil is not to look first at eternity and the divine decree (contrary to the assumption that many make about Reformed theology) but rather to look at history. The mainstream of confessional Reformed theology has appealed to the decree as a source of explanation a posteriori i.e., after the fact. In other words, we haven’t started with the divine decree and from that truth deduced a whole system of theology from it on the basis of what must be true.
When the Reformed Churches turn to history to begin to explain or mitigate the problem of sin and evil, we are following Scripture. The fact is that God created everything and everyone “good.” The affirmation is terribly important. It was widely held in the medieval church that creation (including humanity) was inherently defective by virtue of its finitude. It was widely assumed that there is a sort of scale of being (think of a ladder) at the top of which is God and at the bottom of which is creation and what creation needs is “perfection,” i.e., to move up the scale of being toward God. In this scheme, the fundamental human problem is not sin but finitude. Sin is regarded as a symptom of a more fundamental problem.
This doctrine continues to be the magisterial teaching of the Roman Church, which teaches that humans and God both participate in “being.” Many evangelicals are also influenced by this way of thinking. Their piety and theology revolve around the quest to deny or over come their humanity. One sees this in the fundamentalist rules that say, in effect, “don’t touch,” “don’t taste” (Col 2:21). The influence of this scale of being idea reflects itself in false dualisms, where that which is immaterial is good and that which is material is either thought to be evil or worthy of suspicious. The old Roman Catholic and fundamentalist view of sex as inherently sinful reflects such a dualism. The evangelical (and fundamentalist and revivalist) neglect of the visible, institutional church. Much of that neglect or denial is grounded in the view that God does not operate through human, created things such as sermons, water, bread, and wine. One sees this tendency in the Roman doctrine of transubstantiation. The elements cannot remain mere elements. The essence of the elements of communion must be transformed into divinity.
Even more fundamental to this whole discussion is the question of the relation of nature to grace. There is much confusion surrounding this topic. There are four basic views
- Rome says that grace perfects nature. This is the “scale of being” view already described. In this scheme nature, as such, is thought to be defective.
- The Anabaptists (and many evangelicals) say that grace obliterates nature. Like Rome, these folk regard nature, as such, as inherently defective, but unlike Rome, they expect grace to utterly replace creation altogether. Various forms of perfectionism and the higher life/second blessing doctrine.
- Pantheists and liberals equate grace with nature. In this scheme there is no distinction whatever between nature and grace. In this scheme there is no distinction the Creator and the creature. There can be no doctrine of sin and redemption except to reduce everything to metaphor and figure. “Sin” can be a lack of awareness of one’s potential (or state) and “redemption” becomes realization of one’s state.
- The confessional Protestant view is that grace renews nature, that the latter was created good (and was, therefore, not defective) and has been corrupted or is put to corrupt use by virtue of sin. All human faculties (e.g., the intellect, the will, and the affections) are radically corrupted by sin. Because of the fall, by inclination, we think wrongly, we choose wrongly, and we love wrongly. It is only by grace that we ever come to think, will, or love rightly.
There is no question that humans are fallen and sinful. Rom 1-3 and Eph 1-2 (among other places) is abundantly clear about that. It is less clear to me that creation per se is fallen or sinful nor is it clear to me that creation or creational enterprises need to be redeemed, though evangelicals and transformationalists speak this way routinely. Creation is subject to futility (Rom 8:19-23) and is groaning to be released from the bondage to decay and to enter into the consummate state, but that is not quite the same thing as to say that creation is “fallen.” Rocks don’t have any faculties. They don’t sin. I doubt that dogs sin — my Scottish Terrier is stubborn, but we wouldn’t expect any less from a proper Scotsman would we? Certainly he suffers from the consequences of the fall, but whatever we say in that regard, nothing about the fall makes creation, as such, evil or even something that needs to be “redeemed.” I worry about the effect of equivocating about sin and redemption by applying the same terms to humans and creationally generally. The effect is to broaden thus weakening the ideas of sin and redemption.
Nature generally may need to be renewed, but certainly human nature (it was humans who sinned and they who are redeemed) must be renewed by grace. Humanity, however, remains humanity even in a state of grace. Humans shall ever and only be human, even in glorification.
There is one more thing to be said about the Reformed turn to the history creation and the fall as a partial explanation for the problem of sin and evil.
When it comes to accounting for the entrance of sin and evil into God’s good creation, the first Reformed move is to turn to the history of creation and redemption.
God made us not only “good,” i.e., without defect or lack of being, but also righteous and holy. Strictly defined, the adjective “righteous” speaks to our conformity with the law. We were legally pure. To say that we were created “holy” means that we were created without moral stain or corruption. Holiness is the antithesis of sin. It is the opposite of defilement and impurity. It also refers to being eligible to stand before God in worship.
In other words, our first parents had a right to be in the garden. They were worthy of their estate. They were without legal defect. They were legally just. Further, they not only met the terms of justice (meritum de condigno), they were also worthy of standing before God as priests. Adam, as the first human and the federal head of all humanity, was the priest, the prophet, and the king. He was to rule creation (symbolized by the act of naming the animals) and he was to speak God’s Word to all creatures, and especially to those who oppose God and his kingdom and he was to serve as the religious representative of humanity before God and to keep his temple/garden clean from all potential impurity.
Having been created in righteousness and true holiness he had the potential to fulfill these duties. There was nothing about being human before the fall that necessitated the fall.
We confess these things in defiance of and opposition to the Roman doctrine of “super added grace” (donum super additum) before the fall. This doctrine teaches that Adam had concupiscence (lust) before the fall such that he needed a sort of pre-lapsarian grace to restrain this potential for sin inherent in humanity. We deny that Adam had concupiscence before the fall. We confess that Scripture teaches that concupiscence exists only after the fall and because of the fall. We also confess this understanding of Scripture over against those so-called Federal Visionists (e.g., James Jordan and John Barach et al) who have proposed to replace the Biblical and historic Reformed doctrine of merit with “maturity.”
Doubtless without knowing it, these earnest Protestants have resurrected the Roman doctrine of the donum super additum. By proposing that Adam needed to mature they are implying that Adam was deficient. This is an unavoidable conclusion. Let’s say that we have a 10-year old child who is unusually tall and can physically operate the controls of an auto. Do we let him drive? No, not on the streets anyway (perhaps in a Kansas pasture — where I learned to drive at 14). Why not? Because the child is immature. The child lacks the necessary judgment to be able to operate an auto on public streets with other autos.
The Reformed confession explicitly denies that Adam was deficient. The Reformed Churches confess that Scripture teaches that Adam was intellectually, morally, volitionally, and legally mature. Just because he was not yet glorified does not mean that he was immature. That is why Paul regards him as the federal head of all humanity (Rom 5; 1 Cor 15:45). If Adam was initially immature and needed to mature then are these revisionists proposing that Adam also became a the federal head at a given point in his maturity? When was he not a federal head?
We confess that had he chosen, he might have obeyed the law, he might have loved God with all his faculties and his neighbor as himself. In Belgic Confession Art 14 we confess, that he was “capable in all things to will agreeably to the will of God.” He did, for some period of time, obey the law. We confess that he “willfully subjected himself to sin and consequently to death and the curse, giving ear to the words of the devil. For the commandment of life, which he had received, he transgressed….” It’s clear that he was not “under grace” but “under law” and could have kept that “commandment of life” or “covenant of life” or “covenant of nature” or “covenant of works.” He was able because he was not a sinner until he sinned.
If Adam had been immature, the standard would have been different. We don’t hold children to the same standard as adults. Children are charged as minors and detained in juvenile facilities. Their criminal records are regarded differently because they aren’t as fully culpable for most offenses as adults. Scripture knows nothing of a two-stage approach to Adam’s probation. Adam is the first head of all humanity. He did not become the head of humanity upon his maturity.
The Reformed Churches also confess that God created Adam with a purpose in view.
Q. 6 pt. 4
The second half of this answer has not received the sort of attention that it needs. It begins with a purpose clause, “that…” or “in order that…” In other words, the Catechism (and the Reformed Churches) teaches that Adam was created in his holy and righteous state for a purpose: “that he might rightly know God his Creator, heartily love him and live with him in eternal blessedness, to praise and glorify him.”
For centuries before the Heidelberg Catechism was written, the patristic and medieval church had taught that Adam was in probation. The Reformation theologians and churches continued this doctrine and it appears here in the catechism (and again in Q. 9). The doctrine of Adam’s probation held that Adam was under a temporary test. If he passed, he, and we with him, would enter into eternal blessedness and glory. This is the background of the catechism’s language “and live with him in eternal blessedness.” Adam was not created in eternal blessedness. He was created under the law. It is clear from the narrative in Genesis 2:16-17:
And the LORD God commanded the man, saying, “You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you mshall surely die.” (ESV)
Implied in the phrases “you shall not eat” and “in the day you eat of it is a test. That this was a test appears in 3;1. The Evil One comes to tempt the first Adam (just as he later came to tempt the Second Adam — and we know certainly that probation was temporary). He queried the truth of God’s Word. He suggested that God was afraid of his creature. That was a test. Would Adam obey his Suzerain? Would he exercise his offices as prophet, priest, and king? Would he fulfill the test and expel the Evil One and crush his head in the name of Yahweh?
Of course we know the answer and so did the writers of the catechism.
That’s the tragedy of the modern ignorance of this basic Christian doctrine of Adam’s probation. It leads to a denial of our Lord’s probation. Jesus becomes not the Second Adam (as he was for Paul) who obeyed for us, but rather, a mere example. This way of thinking tends to make Jesus into the first Christian, rather than the Christ. It’s not as if no one has ever taken such steps! The Socinians in the 16th and 17th centuries did just this and a number of the Remonstrants followed them down the same rationalist path.
In the current controversies, it has not been observed often enough how marginalized Jesus’ work is in the theology of the revisionists. In their accounts of redemptive history and Reformed theology they move blithely from Adam’s faith and obedience to ours — without passing of or collecting $200. Paul doesn’t do any such thing. When it comes to sin, as he should, Paul moves from Adam to us. When it comes to obedience and righteousness, Paul contrasts Adam (and all humans in Adam) and Christ (and all believers united to Christ by faith).
Paul thinks this way because he understood the nature of sin and death and the nature of grace and life. Our catechism thinks, if you will, in Pauline trajectories. It certainly doesn’t think like the revisionists.
We confess the faith in the knowledge and confidence that Jesus passed the test. That he was vindicated by his resurrection and glorification. That he has entered into the blessedness that was promised to Adam, but which he failed to earn.
As Adam’s children, we are, as he was, created to obey the law. It is, as Mike Horton says, “hardwired” into us. Like Adam, we too are created for immortality. The path to that blessedness and glory is not by our doing, but by trusting in Jesus who has done for for all his people.
The fall was not God’s fault. It was comprehended in his providence and decree from all eternity, but, in point of fact, it was not God who sinned. It was we who sinned. We disobeyed. We brought death and condemnation into the world. It was Christ the Word who was “full of grace and truth” for us. He entered glory through the cross and so must we, not so much our own crosses, but through his.
Let us think of Jesus not as the first the first Christian but the only Christ, not so much as our model, but our Savior and let us rest in him and his work for righteousness and life.
We Did It
How many times have you said or heard it said, “I’m only human” as way of excusing or minimizing sin? As we’ve seen, we were created righteous and holy. As we struggle with the problem of evil and sin we start with the given that God is not morally liable or at fault for the entrance of sin and evil into the world. God did not sin. God does not tempt us to sin. When we pray, “Lead us not into temptation” we are praying that God would not test us beyond that we are able to withstand.
The catechism puts the question directly:
7. From where then comes this depraved nature of man?
From the fall and disobedience of our first parents, Adam and Eve, in Paradise, whereby our nature became so corrupt that we are all conceived and born in sin.
First it’s necessary to get some things, such as the nature of sin, straight. The patristic and medieval theologians sometimes spoke of sin not as depravity but as “deprivity,” if you will. By coining this word I mean to suggest that the medieval church particularly thought of sin as a fundamental lack in human nature, even prior to the fall. As we’ve seen, such a view of sin is contrary not only to Scripture but also to our confession. It won’t work to make “nature” the problem since that move really makes God liable for sin by virtue of being the Creator.
We have to affirm both that God made us good and that despite that goodness and righteousness, we voluntarily willed to sin. There’s no use in flattening out the mystery of sin. The fall, we say, was (and is) disobedience. It was not a “fall from grace” in the sense that folk often speak. Yes, Adam (and we in him) were in God’s favor. God approved of us, but that approval was relative to our righteousness and holiness. In other words, when we speak of favor before the fall it does not mean what it means when we speak of favor or grace after the fall.
Second, we must get to grips with the fact that sin is lawlessness. This, of course, his how the Apostle John describes sin. It is also how the catechism characterizes sin. Adam was under the law and he broke that law: the day you eat thereof you shall surely die.” This was a negative way of expressing the positive: “Love the Lord your God with all your faculties and your neighbor as yourself.”
In the modern period we have had a great deal of trouble with the very idea of sin. Frequently the idea of sin has been denied a priori. It is often assumed that sin could not exist. Modern folk believe in progress above all and human perfectability. These are two of the great religious hereies of the age.
Even within conservative Christian and Reformed circles it is suggested that we can think of relationships without considering legal or forensic categories. It is suggested that to think of God relating to humans on the basis of law, even before the fall, is inappropriate. Why? I submit that we may have been more influenced by modernity than we like to admit. It also seems that we’re not as immune from the influence of Pelagianizing ideas as we might like to think. Some of us are tempted to blur the line between humanity before and after the fall, to read the postlapsarian world into the prelapsarian world. This is an ancient error that resurfaces periodically.
It’s pretty hard to think of any relationship that is not predicated upon law. Few relationships are as intimate as family but even that most tender bond is premised on the law. I can love them until I’m blue in the face but if I have no legal relationship to them, they aren’t my family. If the legal relationship is violated then the familial relationship is destroyed.
So it was with Adam as the Federal head of humanity as he represented us to God. His filial (son-ship) relation to God was premised upon his legal righteousness. When he violated that law, he also violated a relationship.
“Whereby our nature became so corrupt….” The idea that humans are, by nature, corrupt is heresy to modernity. One of the planks of modern and late modern (what folk call “postmodern”) religion is the essential goodness of humanity. Even those evangelicals who think of themselves as “postmodern” (who are hardly postmodern at all but rather only “most modern”) accept as givens such modernist premises. That humans aren’t really very sinful was a fundamental doctrine of the Finneyite Second Great Awakening and continues to undergird the theology of Finney’s children.
It was Pelagius who notoriously denied original sin. There were others after him, whom we call semi-Pelagians, who affirmed the existence of original sin, but who denied Augustine’s doctrine and Paul’s doctrine of total depravity. Most of the medieval church was semi-Pelagian. Most of the medieval church held that we’re sinful, we’re in need of grace, but we’re not so sinful that we cannot do our part to cooperate with grace. Semi-Pelagianism was criticized by a number of medieval theologians beginning as early as the 9th century. By the 14th century criticism of semi-Pelagianism was widespread. There were a number of notable strongly Augustinian theologians in the late medieval church.
In the Reformation, Luther rejected semi-Pelagianism in his lectures on the Psalms (1512-15) and on Romans (1515-16). Luther read Augustine’s Lectures on the Psalter and realized that Augustine’s account of the theology of the Psalms was much closer to the biblical text than that which he had been taught in university. As he worked through Romans he was confirmed in his view that, by virtue of the fall, we are not only sinful but dead in sin and completely unable to cooperate with grace. This became Calvin’s doctrine and the doctrine of the Reformed Churches in the HC.
The Remonstrants (Arminians) rejected the strict Pauline, Augustinian, Lutheran, and Reformed doctrine of original sin. Yes, they said, we’re sinful, but not so sinful that…
It’s this version of semi-Pelagianism that reigns throughout evangelicalism today. Any theology that says “grace and cooperation with grace” relative to justification is necessarily semi-Pelagian. It’s this version of semi-Pelagianism that threatens to re-enter the Reformed churches via movements such as the Federal Vision or via the theology of covenant nomism (NPP) or the theology of Norman Shepherd. The latter says that Adam was to cooperate with grace toward salvation and Jesus cooperated with grace and we’re to cooperate with grace toward salvation just like Adam and Jesus. This move from Adam to Jesus to Us, whereby Jesus becomes the first Christian, is not only the move of 19th-century liberalism but it is also the move of a sort of Pelagian. Indeed, Jacob Arminius would blush at Norman Shepherd’s construction of the relations between Adam, Jesus, and the believer. Arminius had a more profound doctrine of original sin and its consequences than Shepherd.
The Pauline doctrine and the doctrine of the Reformed Churches, however, is not semi-Pelagian. We do not confess that, by virtue of the fall, we are sinful. We confess that we are corrupt in all our faculties such that we are “dead in sins and trespasses.” Relative to justification and salvation we are utterly helpless. Unlike those medieval theologians and the Arminians who held that God gives a sort of prevenient grace that gives all the opportunity to be justified and saved if we do our part, we confess no such view of grace and human ability.
Sin did not inflict just a “flesh wound.” The effects of sin are devastating. By nature, after the fall, instead of loving righteousness. we love unrighteousness. Instead of choosing light, we choose darkness. Instead of seeking what is beautiful, we seek what is ugly. Instead of valuing life, we made a covenant with death. We call these effects of the fall depravity.
Partly because of our doctrine of sin we confess that the only grace we know is the free, unconditional, unmerited or de-merited favor of God toward those who cannot do anything toward their own awakening from spiritual death to life (regeneration) and who cannot even cooperate with grace toward justification. Yes, having been raised with Christ, having been united to Christ by faith alone, by grace alone, we may be said to cooperate with grace in progressive sanctification. This is necessary, but that’s a topic for another day.
Paul says that there isn’t a single one of us who is righteous, not one one. We have all sinned in Adam. We all have our own actual sins. Every one of our faculties is corrupted. Paul says that the wages of sin is death. Our first instinct, after the fall is to murder (e.g., Cain) and when we build civilizations (e.g., Gen 6) they become uncivilized. This is why the modern dream of peace is utopian. It denies the nature and consequences of sin. Of course there will be wars and rumors of wars! Human beings are inherently wicked. Our slogan is “What’s mine is mine and what’s your’s is mine.”
The modern dogma of human progress, however, has blinded us to the reality of sin. We were all rebuked by a secular psychologist in the 1950s, who raised the ugly spectre of sin again at the height of modern arrogance.
For anyone with eyes to see, sola gratia, the effects of sin are everywhere, whether it is morons in Jena, LA threatening to lynch people, Jihadists murdering innocents in the name of Allah, a business man taking advantage of a customer, or some drunk weaving home in dylan%20saved.jpghis car after a night out.
The catechism, as it were, does not need to be reminded about the reality of sin and its effects. The catechism reminds us that we are all “conceived and born in sin.” We don’t confess that sex is evil, but we do say that none of us escapes the effects of the fall. As Dylan said, “stone cold dead as I stepped out of the womb.”
But are we so depraved, that we are wholly incapable of any good and prone to all evil?
Yes, unless we are born again by the Spirit of God.
Like Dr Jekyll most of us maintain decent outward lives but like Dr Jekyll, we all have within us a rapacious beast. The outward decency that most of us maintain most of the time is deceiving. Ironically, the only reason that Mr Hyde (no offense Danny!) doesn’t emerge more often is that God restrains our evil hearts and hands by his providence. He enables civil goodness that we eagerly mistake for genuine righteousness and goodness.
Therefore, contrary to the frequent caricature of Reformed theology, we don’t confess that we are as bad outwardly as we might be all the time. We confess, however, that the potential is certainly present. By virtue of the fall, we are genuinely wicked within. When we do horrible things, it should be no surprise to a Christian. By virtue of the fall, our natural inclination, our habitus, our propensity is to do evil. Do I have to catalogue the sins of the modern period? Modern and late modern folk like to rant about how terrible Christianity has been yaddah yaddah. Well, the Christians, as rotten as we have been at times, are pikers as compared to the pagans. Have you any idea how many folks the pagan totalitarians and utopians have killed in the modern period? Start with the Russian communists, then the Chinese communists, then the Cambodians, then African tribal wars, then throw in the Nazis, and we’ve arrived at some pretty startling numbers that dwarf the rest of history. When it comes to mass murder, we’ve been pretty productive for “Englightened,” “mature,” “civilized,” “developed” people since the beginning of the 20th century.
Large scale evil is easy to see. Subterranean evil, if you will, is harder to see and just as bad: suburban sex parties (a local girl was kidnapped and murdered a few years ago and in the course of the investigation it turned out that a whole neighborhood was “swinging”), cheating on taxes, and stealing from the boss. It’s everywhere because we’re everywhere and wherever we are, there sin is also.
The modern religion is that we’re basically good. Every Christmas some TV reporter tells us about something nice someone did, some basic act of humanity that “restores one’s faith in human goodness.” There is real human goodness. No I haven’t lost my faith. That is civil goodness and that is dim reflection of our original, created goodness, but because of the fall, all that “goodness” is of no spiritual value. It’s always corrupted. It’s never pure. It’s always, at some level, self-serving and does not meet the standard of God’s righteousness.
The modern religion of basic human goodness is a lie. It is Pelagian (see the posts on Q. 7). It assumes that we’re not fallen with Adam. It rejects the very notion of a federal solidarity with Adam as “unfair” and federal solidarity with Christ as superfluous.
Modern evangelicalism is the child of modernity. We might call it “semi-modern.” Most evangelicals know that we’re sinful, but they don’t think that we’re so sinful that we can’t “do our part.” This idea has even infiltrated into the Reformed Churches at different times in the garb of Arminianism and now in the Federal Vision. This is a basic premise to all “grace and cooperation with grace” schemes. Anyone who says that we must or can cooperate with grace toward justification denies the nature and effects of sin.
Gen 6:5 “The LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.”
Ps 5:9 “their throat is lan open grave”
Ps. 143:2, “Enter not into judgment with your servant,
for no one living is righteous before you.”
Rom 1:18 “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth.”
Rom 1:21 “For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they obecame futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened.”
Rom 3:9-20 “For we have already charged that all, both Jews and Greeks, are under sin, as it is written:
‘None is righteous, no, not one;
no one understands;
no one seeks for God.
All have turned aside; together they have become worthless;
no one does good,
not even one.’
‘Their throat is an open grave;
they use their tongues to deceive.’
‘The venom of asps is under their lips.’
‘Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness.’
‘Their feet are swift to shed blood;
in their paths are ruin and misery,
and the way of peace they have not known.’
‘There is no fear of God before their eyes.’
It is not as Scripture is describing only Hitler and Pol Pol Pot! No. It describes YOU and ME and everyone of Adam’s children. This is what we, Europeans, Asians, Africans, Americans, South Americans, all are by nature. It doesn’t matter how much you made or didn’t make last year. It doesn’t matter where you went to school or didn’t go to school. It doesn’t matter how much you donated to Good Will or Red Cross. It doesn’t matter how nice your front lawn is. It doesn’t matter how well groomed your children are. Your hard childhood doesn’t excuse you.
Until you recognize yourself in these verses, Jesus and his righteousness for sinners and the grace of God to sinners will mean nothing.
That is why the HC is completely realistic about what sort of people we have become after the fall. We need to recapture that realism without falling into despair or cynicism, that is a denial of grace and redemption. The catechism preaches the law because it wants to drive us to Christ and his gospel, but the gospel is for sinners. God redeems sinners.
In 1977 Billy Graham published How to Be Born Again. This book was in a long tradition of religious “how to.” By today’s standards, compared to Joel Osteen and the like, it was positively orthodox. At least it talked about sin and the need for grace and salvation.
The truth is, however, there is no “how to” when it comes to being born again. The question the catechism asks is “are we so depraved…?” To say “depraved” is to say corrupt. In his book Graham spoke of sin as a disease. That’s not right. It isn’t a disease. It’s a death. There’s a difference. One can be ill and still function. One cannot be dead and function. Scripture says that “the wages of sin is death.” Because we are so utterly corrupted, we are incapable of any spiritual good. Some medieval theologians talked about “doing what lies within us.” Paul says that there is nothing within us to do. This is why the metaphors of “death” and “birth” are so important.
The HC says “born again.” Of course it is referring to Jesus’ dialogue with the Pharisee Nicodemus. The latter came to Christ late one night to ask him to ask our Lord some important questions. He came at night because he couldn’t come by day. He couldn’t afford to be seen treating Jesus with respect or asking him serious questions. Remember that the Pharisees were the “masters” of the law. They had their own “fence around the law” to keep God’s people from breaking any of the 614 commandments of the Torah (Gen – Deut). They were known for their knowledge of and outward obedience to the law, or at least their outward obedience to their interpretation of the law.
Nicodemus understood that Jesus had real power and authority. This troubled him because his paradigm told him that, if anyone should have such things in this world, it should be the Pharisees who possessed them, but they did not. He knew that they had power and influence with people (like magicians) but not with God. Jesus, however, had divine power and authority.
Jesus replied that “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” This isn’t what Nicodemus expected. He expected some sort of method. He expected some rule. He expected something he could do. The fundamental lie is that we can do something to get what we want from God.
Jesus said, in effect, “You can’t do anything.” That’s the point of saying “born again.” In fact, if we read the word “again” the way it is usually used in John’s writings it is even better understood to mean “from above.” It could well be that Jesus meant to imply two things at the same time. We must be born again and that birth is “from above.”
Paul says that we’re dead in sins and trespasses. Jesus says the same thing by using the metaphor of birth. From an observational perspective, we mark the beginning of life at birth. To say “born again” or “born from above” is to say “You aren’t really born, you’re dead, oblivious. You lack the principle of life.”
The pharisee didn’t understand — he wasn’t born again/from above! He couldn’t understand. What is Jesus doing? How is Nicodemus going to be able to do anything? He can’t. That’s the point. Jesus isn’t giving advice. He’s not offering “how to” methods. He’s preaching the law. This is why he speaks below of “bearing witness.” This is not an informal expression. He’s invoking the legal standard of courtroom testimony. As a Pharisee, who had memorized the Torah, Nicodemus should have understood immediately what Jesus was doing, that the Lord was prosecuting Nicodemus for his sin and unbelief. He’s teaching Nicodemus about his fundamental need.
The Lord says,
“Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”
Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” Jesus answered him, “Are you the teacher of Israel yand yet you do not understand these things? Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak of what we know, and bear witness to what we have seen, but you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things?
Nicodemus has physical, biological life but he doesn’t have Spiritual life because only God the Holy Spirit gives life and, as yet, the Spirit had not yet given life to Nicodemus. Sometimes Reformed writers have written about the Spirit’s work as if he has nothing to do with means but notice, however, how it is that Jesus expects the Spirit to give life, if he will: through the Word. What we see here is the law, but in the next few verses Jesus preaches the gospel: “For God so loved the world….”
Notice too how our Lord speaks of the sovereignty of the Holy Spirit. Like the wind, he blows where he wills, as it were. The Spirit who hovered over the face of the deep is the Spirit who gives life to sinners.
It is not we who must do anything to “be born again.” It is the Spirit of God who must do. He must come. He must give life. He must regenerate. He must give life. Nicodemus doesn’t yet understand, but Jesus does — the Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son (filioque). The Son, from whom the Spirit is eternally proceeding, is he from whom, in the economy of salvation, the Holy Spirit comes to his people.
There are signs in the gospel of John that, indeed, the Spirit of God did work through the preaching of the law and the gospel. In John 7:50-51 he makes a meagre attempt to defend Christ before his colleagues. In 19:38-39 we read that, after Jesus’ crucifixion, Nicodemus came again to Jesus with myrrh and aloes for Jesus’ burial. John notes that this was the same Nicodemus who had earlier come to Jesus at night.
John doesn’t say explicitly that Nicodemus was born again but it is certainly suggested. Those associated with the care of Jesus’ body are those who loved him. The rest of the pharisees are nowhere to be seen, but Nicodemus was there. Perhaps it is because the Spirit had or was doing his mysterious work?
9. Does not God then do injustice to man by requiring of him in His Law that which he cannot perform?
No, for God so made man that he could perform it, but man, through the instigation of the devil, by willful disobedience deprived himself and all his posterity of those divine gifts.
As we have seen repeatedly through the first eight questions of the HC, Scripture teaches that we were created good. This truth needs to be repeated because it has been denied so widely and often that one suspects that most Christians whether evangelical or Roman or Orthodox do not really believe that we were created good. Rome teaches and many evangelicals believe that we were, in some way, defective from the beginning and that the fall happened because we were defective. Of course Scripture says that opposite: “And it was very good.”
Why is it necessary to go over this once again? Because it is essential to the answer to this question. Is God unrighteous for demanding of fallen humans, who cannot now perform it, the same obedience that he demanded of them before the fall, when they could actually do it?
The answer is no. God is just in his demand of sinners that they obey because they were created with the ability to obey. The fact that they cannot now obey is not God’s fault. He has not changed. His law has not changed. His righteousness has not changed. Indeed, in the nature of things, it cannot change. God being who and what he is. There’s nothing wrong with God’s standard.
Part of the problem is that we don’t understand the word “righteous” any longer. It means “just.” It means “without moral flaw.” It means “beyond question.” It means “the standard by which everything is measured morally and legally.”
Of course, as fallen and corrupt sinners, we think that WE should be the standard of righteousness! We demand of God that he change his standard to conform to us. Yes, we “erred” we think to ourselves, but “to err is human, to forgive divine.” Ah, now we have God right where we want him. We’ve established a new morality, a parallel morality to his and we assert it vigorously and demand that he come to heel.
The main difficulty is that God isn’t having any of it. He won’t come to heel. He won’t change himself or his standard. Our sin is not, as it were, his problem. It is our problem. He does not have to conform to our changing standards and expectation, we must conform to his. The law of God is perfect, holy, and righteous. There is nothing wrong with it and everything right with it. It’s expectation is relentless. It’s demand is relentless: “Perform.” “Do.” “Obey.” “Love God and neighbor flawlessly and perpetually or die.” “The day you eat thereof you shall surely die.” “Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything written in the book of the law.” “Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord of Hosts.”
One corollary to these facts is this: the Heidelberg Catechism assumes and clearly implies that before the fall we under the law. The catechism clearly says that we were made so that we could obey it. We did not obey it but we could and, presumably for an indeterminate period of time, we did obey it. Only after the fall, when we had sinned, can we be said to be under grace.
It is difficult to get modern people to imagine, on the one hand, that we were were once good but are now, by nature, bad. It is exceeding difficult to get late moderns to imagine that we are all, by nature, under a just and relentless law. The late modern person assumes that there is no universal law that could possibly bind all persons, in all times, without exception. It is of the essence of late modernity to imagine that we are our own law-givers.
It is important for us to realize how deeply ingrained these ideas are. This recognition helps us to understand, in part, why folk are so resistant to the notion of a probationary, prelapsarian covenant. Opposition to this covenant is often couched in terms of an answer to critics of the covenant of works/nature/life/law. The Barthians reject the covenant of works on several grounds, chief among them, the a priori that there could not have been any such arrangement between God and man. As far as I can tell, Barth hardly believed in creation, as we have understood it, let alone an historic person, a prelapsarian law, and an historic fall.
Others, influenced by Barth, have rejected the covenant of works because they want to begin with grace and not law. They do this as a response to the criticism that to begin with the covenant of works/law/nature/life is “legalistic.” In contemporary theological discourse, the adjective “legalistic” is a magic word. Just as when we were children and in some children’s game someone said the magic word and we all fell down, so it is today that, when someone utters the word “legalism,” we must, as it were, fall down, abandon our position and take up a fall-back position. We all know that legalism is a bad thing. We don’t want to be associated with a bad thing. We want folk to believe the faith and if this “legalistic” construct keeps folk from the faith, then we must abandon it.
Not I. Yes, it is true that the prelapsarian covenant of life/works/nature/law is legalistic. So what? We were under law! God made a law. We had to keep it. Our status was contingent upon keeping it. Our life was contingent upon keeping it. Our entrance into eschatological glory was contingent upon law keeping. The future of the human race was conditioned upon our law keeping. If we kept the law, God would approve of us. If we failed to keep the law, God would disapprove of us and that’s a bad thing. When it comes to the covenant of works, I’m a legalist! You betcha.
Why do we resist this but we accept other legalisms routinely. If we run a red light and get pulled over, we cannot complain. We broke the law. Is it legalistic for the officer to write a ticket? We might try to argue so, but we know that we are liars. We know we did it and we know that we are guilty. Theft is still wrong. Is a shopkeeper legalistic for prosecuting a thief? No. Have you ever taken a new position and been put on “probation?” If you haven’t, you probably will be. Students are on probation all the time. The first year of my doctoral work I was on “probationary” status. I had to perform certain tasks to successfully fulfill the probation. Civil life is generally a covenant of works, one giant probation. There are no “do-overs” when it comes to civil righteousness. To the degree we don’t reckon with these realities, to that degree we delude ourselves. Law is everywhere and it reflects the creational order.
Why do we fear the adjective “legalistic”? Because when folk accuse the covenant of works/life/nature/law of being “legalistic” they are equivocating. Legalism, after the fall, as a way of justification by and for sinners, is a bad thing, but before the fall and for the sinless (e.g. Jesus!), is it’s a good thing. We fear it because we do not distinguish clearly before the prelapsarian world and the postlapsarian world. This is a fundamental mistake.
The sinless have nothing to fear from the law. The law is their friend. The law does not accuse them. The law does not condemn them. It is the sinner and the sinful who should fear the law. Adam, before the fall, was neither a sinner nor sinful. Jesus, born of a virgin, was neither a sinner nor sinful. They were righteous and able to keep the law. Jesus, the Second Adam, did keep the law. He was under a covenant of works. Indeed, we could even say that he was under a twofold covenant of works since he had not only to keep the covenant of works/law/nature/life that Adam refused to keep but he also had to keep the legal covenant he voluntarily made with his Father (pactum salutis) from eternity. Talk about legalism!
Please bear in mind our definition of sin: “Any want of conformity unto or transgression of the law of God.” That’s significant. The Roman communion defines the fall as a fall from grace. We do not. We confess that the fall was a violation of the law. So, yes, it is fair to require sinners to keep the law. The fall is not the fault of the law. The law is good, holy, and just. We were made to keep the law. The needs to be kept. It demands to be obeyed and it demands reparations from those who have not kept it.
In this light, we can see why it is so wonderful to speak of a covenant of grace. The covenant announces that someone else has kept the law, has satisfied its demands, has paid the penalty for our lawbreaking for us (pro nobis). This is the good news: Christ the law keeper and penalty payer has come. This is what it means for Paul to call him the “last Adam.” He is the head of all who believe (Rom 5). By his one act of obedience, we, who believe, who are united to Christ by grace alone, through faith alone, are made right again with God for all time.
If we begin with a covenant of grace, however, pious it may sound, we actually do a great disservice to Adam and to Christ. We diminish Christ’s work for us. If we say Christ was under a covenant of grace, we deny his obedience for us. Grace, by definition, means that Christ did not really fulfill the terms of justice. How is that not blasphemy? To say suggest that Adam was under grace is to deny his initial righteousness and holiness. As a righteous and holy man, Adam had no need of grace.
Just as the last Adam was under law for us, so the first Adam, and we in him, were under law. Only against this background can we understand and appreciate what it means to speak of grace. If the first covenant was “gracious” and we are under that “gracious” covenant then grace is no longer grace and law is no longer law and the good news is no longer the good news.
I understand the impulse to make the faith attractive, but giving up the covenant of works/law/nature/life is too high a price to pay. As Cornelis Plantinga says about the doctrine of the Trinity, it is attached to the gears and pulleys of the Christian faith. To cut it loose would bring the whole thing, the message of the gospel, to a stop.
10. Will God suffer such disobedience and apostasy to go unpunished?
By no means, but He is terribly displeased with our inborn as well as our actual sins, and will punish them in just judgment in time and eternity, as He has declared: “Cursed is every one that continueth not in all things which are written in the Book of the Law to do them.”
Most people in our age seemed truly shocked by the notion that there is an abiding, universal, unbending moral standard. I think that we have all got so used to simply making up things as we go along that it never occurs to most of us that, in fact, there is a revealed, moral, righteous, eternal law to which each and everyone of us must give account.
The first thing the Evil One did was to raise doubts about this very question? “Has God really said?” Is the law really abiding, eternal, immutable etc? Or, is it the case that the law is situationally determined? Could it be that we can reason with God and show him how unjust he’s being? The Adversary offered to Adam an alternate explanation of reality. He offered to him a story that included the fulfillment of innate human potential and a story that implied that God isn’t really just– and in fact suggested that God is positively unjust for seeking to suppress that innate potential divinity by means of the law.
To reinforce his law and to signal how he regards disobedience, the LORD instituted the strongest possible punishment for disobedience: “The day you eat thereof, you shall surely die.” Looking back, of course, it all seems so clear. There may have been certain kinds of (plant and animal) death before the fall, on that question I’m uncertain, but I’m sure that no humans, no image bearers had died before the fall. Thus, the idea of human mortality must have been strange to Adam. I wonder if he contemplated it? Perhaps it seemed so unreal to him that when the Adversary suggested an alternate interpretation of the universe it had a certain plausibility to it? Of course, Adam’s job, his holy vocation before the face of God, was to despatch the Liar (and father of lies) immediately. He did not. As it turned out, that would be only one of a complex of sins (James 1:13-15).
It is no small thing that God instituted the death penalty for sin. The Apostle Paul understood the consequences and reflects on it when he says “the wages of sin is death.” The moment Adam chose to enter into what Olevianus called a “false covenant” with Satan, he died. He died spiritually. Now God was no longer his friend. When God the Son came looking for Adam, it was not in friendship but in judgment and Adam knew it. Ridiculously, he attempted to hide himself from the omniscient ruler of the universe. This first futile postlapsarian act is immediate and prima facie evidence of the effect of the fall on the human intellect! Rule #1: When you offend an omniscient and omnipotent being, don’t compound it by hiding and lying.
The moment he sinned, he began to decay. Instead of passing the test and entering into glory and life, he failed the test and entered into condemnation and corruption.
Tragically, when he did so, he didn’t do it alone.
Adam did not act as a purely private person. This is another idea that is hard for us to understand today. We don’t always clearly distinguish between “private” and “public” acts or roles. Adam had a public, official role to perform as the representative of all humanity. He was created good (Col 3:10), in the image of his Creator. He was, as Augustine said, “able to sin, able not to sin.”
Whatever he did, he would do for all of us, and thus, what he did, we did. Thus, Adam was not alone in the Garden. There is another, literal, sense in which he was not alone. Beside his wife, there was another creature in the Garden: The Evil One. According to the Genesis narrative, as catechism summarizes it, he instigated sin. He tried or tempted Adam. It was the image bearer’s vocation to resist the tempter and to conquer him, to slay him out of devotion to the Lord. The curse for breaking the covenant of works/nature/life/law was death. The Evil One was manifestly a liar and the father of sin. He was intent on seducing Eve, and through her, Adam, into breaking the covenant. He proposed an alternative to the covenant of works/life/nature/law: a covenant of equality with God. Whereas the Lord had promised glorification on condition of obedience to God, the Evil Promised deification on condition of obedience to himself. Adam had a clear, unequivocal choice. He chose equality with God and with that choice, he also chose death.
The sin that he committed was the original sin. When he sinned, he became a sinner. Since, however, we are all Adam’s children, we don’t become sinners when we sin (that was the error of Pelagius). Rather, we sin because, in Adam, we are all sinners (Rom 5). We all have inborn sin. As a consequence of that inborn sin, we all commit actual sin. Scripture reflects on this relationship in Ps 51:5, “Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me.” David confesses his sin but he also confesses his sinfulness. When he says that he was conceived in sin he isn’t reflecting on the act of procreation, but rather, on the results of the fall. Adam’s children are all sinful from the beginning of our existence. This is the teaching of Rom 5:12 Through Adam’s sin, “death spread to all men, because all sinned.”
Outside of Christ, we face temporal punishment. Paul is explicit about the devastating effects and the overwhelming evidence of sin. Some would explain away sin by appealing to evolutionary biology, but that’s just a convenient dodge. It ‘s a way of making sin normal. It is a way of excuse ourselves, to relieve our selves of responsibility for our choices when, in fact, sin and death is the exact opposite of normal. It is abnormal. That’s why we experience the sting of death. The pain and grief associated with death is no mere evolutionary response. Indeed, evolution doesn’t explain the grief we experience when we lose a loved one. The Scriptural explanation does, however, account for human experience. We grieve because death was the consequence of sin. This is why Heb 9:27 relates our death and the coming judgment to the death of Christ.
The death that followed sin is curse. It was repeated in the history of redemption. Deut 27:26 says, “Cursed be anyone who does not confirm the words of this law by doing them.’ And all the people shall say, ‘Amen.'” The very curse of Gen 2:17 is repeated and re-affirmed in the context of the Israelite national covenant. Not that Israel’s justification before God or even her salvation from sin and death was conditioned upon works, but her status as a national people was a reflection of the original works principle. It served to remind them corporately of the righteousness of God’s law and the need for a law keeper.
This is just how the Apostle Paul understands this passage in Gal 3:10. He quotes this same passage and adds, “Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law, for ‘The righteous shall live by faith.'” (Gal 3:11).
Whether in the first covenant or during the Mosaic covenant or now, the wages of sin is death. The law is the standard of righteousness. The law is extrinsic and objective and unyielding. The law does not care about our feelings. It is what it is. The penalty is equally relentless.
The gospel is equally objective and extrinsic. That’s why Paul says that “the righteous shall live by faith.” Faith is, as we confess in the Belgic Confession, the “sole instrument” by which we come in possession of the righteousness which has satisfied the law of God.
We don’t like to face the ugly facts of sin and death, but they are just that: facts. Anyone with eyes can see the effects of sin all about us. Those effects testify of the reality of sin and that reality drives to look for a Savior who has faced our sin and addressed its consequences.
One of the more difficult doctrines for the modern mind to accept is the doctrine of divine punishment.
The modern creed has three or four points, one of which is universalism, i.e. the doctrine that all are saved. All dogs (and people) go to heaven. It is axiomatic for modern folk that God may not distinguish between human beings. It’s true that God is no respecter of persons, meaning that God doesn’t favor the rich over the poor (indeed, there is a good lot of biblical evidence to suggest that the relations are the other way round!), he doesn’t favor ethnic groups as such and so on. The modern creed, however, holds much more than that. The modern creed holds that God cannot distinguish or treat one human being differently than another. Since this is axiomatic, it’s a nearly universal assumption among contemporary evangelical and especially among liberal Christians. This is what most folk mean when they say “justice” or “fairness.” This is the a priori that lies behind the belief that Jesus made salvation possible for all (he wrote the check) and it’s up to us to appropriate that salvation by faith (or by faith and works), i.e. it’s up to us to “cash the check.” Among modern liberals (and particularly my old friends the Unitarian Universalists) the idea that God should have divided humanity into classes of elect and reprobate is one of the most horrific notions of historic Christianity that, in their mind, justifies their utter disgust with it.
A closely related corollary to the modern rejection of any idea of reprobation is the modern rejection of the doctrine of hell and punishment. I can’t tell you how many times people have said to me “I can’t believe in a God who would send people to hell.” It must be nice to be able to define your own god — on reflection, maybe not! Of course these same people also believe that they are basically righteous. They don’t accept the essential premise of the doctrine of hell and punishment: that, after the fall, God alone is righteous and that human beings deserve to be punished. Most people today don’t really accept the very idea of sin (transgression of or want of conformity to God’s law).
The pre-modern church, by contrast, had relatively less difficulty with this doctrine because they accepted the doctrines of divine righteousness and human sinfulness. In the modern period, after the Enlightenment, the proportions of people who accepted and rejected these doctrines were reversed. There were probably always some who rejected the doctrines of sin, hell, and punishment. That number certain grew during the Renaissance and was fueled by a series of theologically deviant movements in the sixteenth century. All those who have rejected the doctrines of sin, punishment, and hell have one thing in common: rationalism. Whatever Scripture seemed to say, the ratiionalist KNOWS that it couldn’t possibly be so because he KNOWS what justice is. Whereas the Christian begins with divine revelation, the rationalist intellect intersects with ultimate rationality or some universal rational principle to which all beings (god and humans) must assent. “Christian” rationalism has often posited that the human intellect intersects with the divine. Pagan rationalism sets up some version of autonomous rationality by which all other authorities (including Scripture) are levered. In the Enlightenment they set out to explain how it is that they KNOW that it couldn’t possibly be the case and it was on that basis that they openly sat in judgment over Scripture.
As the Enlightenment rationalism began to infiltrate into the church there were some who openly articulated the rationalist ground for rejecting reprobation, punishment, and hell. Others, liberals, accepted that rationalist account but tried to re-shape Christianity along more “Enlightened” lines without saying openly what they were doing. They thought it was okay if the little old ladies in their parishes thought that we all still believed the faith. This the sort of thing that provoked J. Gresham Machen’s Christianity and Liberalism. The liberals routed the “conservatives” and swept the board. They took control of the institutions, boards, and committees and within a decade or two mention of reprobation, punishment, or hell could only provoke disapproving clucking from the illuminati. Today it’s more likely to bring charges and some sort of academic star chamber proceeding on many campuses.
Progressively, since the 1970s, neo-evangelicals and their children have been making peace not only with the mainline but with the liberalism of the mainline, including the rationalist rejection of reprobation, punishment, and hell. Many of today’s evangelicals are the children and grand children of angry, purple veined, white-shirted, sweaty fundamentalists. They reacted by trading one form of doctrinal and ecclesiastical minimalism for another. Never did they give the Reformation a serious look because they just assumed the identity of the Reformation with their fundamentalist background. Now, sitting in a polite, latitudinarian, Anglican service, where everyone and everything is O so sweetly reasonable and where doctrinal pluralism is the order of the day and where (perhaps) the prayer book and personal religious experience are the only two universals really does change “plausibility structures.”
When John Stott (whom I don’t know but whose writing has been a great help to me) and John Wenham (whom I did know, and whose writing has been equally valuable) criticized and rejected the doctrines of hell and eternal punishment, that was the signal for many evangelicals that it was now okay to adopt, in effect, the liberal view on these topics. When I interviewed at a Christian College some years back an administrator asked me if I believed in hell. I said, “yes.” He asked, “Is anyone going there?” “Sadly, yes” I replied. He told me that they were having a difficult time finding candidates who still believed the doctrine of hell or eternal punishment.
There is much more to say and we haven’t even touched the doctrine of temporal punishment yet. One final thought for this post. We late moderns should not assume that our pre-modern forefathers (and foremothers) had an easy time with the doctrines of reprobation, punishment, and hell. In his commentary on this question, Zacharias Ursinus (the primary author of the catechism) wrote, in part, “In the exposition of this Question, we must consider the evil of punishment, which is the other part of the misery of man. In relation to this we are taught that God punishes sin most severely, justly, and certainly.
Unlike some, who seem positively to revel in the doctrines of reprobation, punishment, and hell, Ursinus strikes two chords: 1) he regarded the reality of punishment and hell as an “evil,” 2) he affirmed them anyway because he (and we with him) understood them to be biblical truths (not mere medieval fancies) and theological consequences of our doctrines of the righteousness and holiness of God and our doctrine of sin. The difference between Ursinus and moderns is that Ursinus regarded Scripture as the final authority for faith and life, whereas moderns assume that we are the principium cognoscendi (the beginning of knowing) and the final authority. Ursinus believed in sin. By and large, except when discussing corporate entities (e.g. society) moderns do not. Ursinus believed in fixed law and righteousness. Moderns do not. Ursinus feared God. Moderns do not. They won’t have a god they must fear.
Eternal punishment is one thing, but what about “temporal” punishment? Does God punish sin and sinners in this life?
Yes and no. One of the great laments of the psalms is “Why do the wicked prosper?” Ps 73 says that the “arrogant” and the “wicked…have no pangs until death; their bodies are fat and sleek. They are not in trouble as others are; they are not stricken like the rest of mankind” (Ps 73:3b-5; ESV). If the law says “do and live” and “sin and die” then it would seem that justice requires that those who are wicked in this life should suffer proportionately and that those who are righteous in the life should prosper accordingly. Experience, history, and Scripture all testify to the contrary, however. There is not a strict 1:1 ratio. Indeed, as the psalmist (Asaph) observes, sometimes the corollary seems to be turned on its head. Sometimes they are inordinately prosperous! “Their eyes swell out through fatness….” (v.7). The dissonance between what is and what should can be so great, in this world, as to make people say, “How can God know? Is there knowledge in the Most High?” (v. 11).
Asaph wrestled with this question almost to despair. He testifies: “But when I thought how to understand this, it seemed to me a wearisome task.” (v.17a). He was almost to despair, but not quite. It was a “wearisome task” until he “went into vthe sanctuary of God” where he “discerned their end” (v.17b).
The unbelieving (both inside and outside the covenant community) think that all is well. Indeed, sometimes God does prosper them materially. The mistake we make is how we evaluate blessing and curse. That’s what Asaph discovered in the sanctuary. He discovered the true nature of blessing and curse, after the fall and relative to God. What seems to the unregenerate, and sometimes to us in our unreflective moments, “blessing” isn’t really that at all. All that prosperity is really a sort of judgment. Asaph says that God has actually “set them in slippery places….” (v.18).
Everything that we reckon as a sign of divine blessing can be “destroyed in a moment, swept away utterly by terrors!” Ask Job. Ask those who were taken away in the captivity. Ask those who were in Palestine when Antiochus invaded (168/67 BC) or when Titus arrived (70 AD).
The problem is not that God is unjust but that we are “brutish and ignorant” (v. 22). Unbelievers and hypocrites (in and out of the congregation) may have much in this life but God guides his people in this life with his counsel and in the next he receives them “to glory” (v. 24). When we put the question of God’s justice in its eschatological perspective we can say with Asaph, “Whom have I in heaven but you? And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever. For behold, those who are far from you shall perish; you put an end to everyone who is unfaithful to you. But for me it is good to be near God; I have made the Lord GOD my refuge, that I may tell of all your works.”
Under the typological (old) covenant, under Moses and David, there was a general sort of correlation of earthly prosperity in the land and national, outward, obedience. When they were disobedient, eventually, the national, typological church was taken into captivity. All of that was nothing more than a giant sermon illustration pointing to the coming of the truly and completely obedient Son (Heb 3:5-6), the true Israel of God (Matt 2:15). God graciously granted to Asaph (and to others, we trust) insight into the true nature of things, beyond the typological national covenant.
The reality is that those who are not completely righteous are in jeopardy of eternal punishment (not annihilation) but they also suffer temporal punishment. Zacharias Ursinus, the major author of the catechism and the one authorized by Frederick III to give the authoritative exposition of the catechism addresses this very issue in his lecture on this question (Commentary, p.68). The catechism says that all sins are punished, but it seems that the wicked prosper, therefore how can we say that all sins are punished? He replies:
“They will at length be punished: yea they are even in this life punished, 1. In the conscience, by whose stings the wicked are tortured. 2. Also, in those things which they use with the greatest eagerness and delight; and the less they know, and acknowledge themselves to be punished, so much the heavier it is. 3. They are also often afflicted with other grievous punishments. And yet their punishment will be still more dreadful in the life to come, where it will be everlasting death.”
The temporal (this life) punishments that the wicked suffer are only the beginning of what is to come. Even though it “consists of several parts” These are two stages of what Ursinus called “one punishment.” “Present punishment is but the beginning of everlasting punishment.” (As an aside, he makes this point in response to the argument that it would be unjust for God to punish sin twice. His answer is that God doesn’t punish sin twice! This is interesting because this is one of the traditional objections to the doctrine of the imputation of active obedience).
What about the sufferings of the righteous, i.e. of those to whom Christ’s righteousness has been imputed? If their sins have been punished in Christ’s active suffering on their behalf, why does God continue to punish them? Ursinus helps us here again. The “afflictions” which believers suffer in this life are not to be regarded as punishments for sin, quid pro quo, but as “the chastisement of a father, sent for the purpose of humbling them. Hence it becomes necessary for us….” (p. 69). Of course, this is exactly what Heb 12:4-7 says.
Crefalo Dollar and Joel Osteen and the rest of the “best life now” crowd, in whatever form they may be found are false prophets. God’s people do suffer in this life. Ask Asaph! The wicked don’t always suffer as greatly, but if they remain outside of Christ those hidden punishments will come to fruition. We don’t live in the typological old covenant nor do we live in the consummate age. We live in the penultimate age when we must put up with the “health and wealth” liars and apparent inequity in this life because we trust that all will be made right in due time.
In the meantime, because we are not national Israel, because we are not charged with the literal destruction of God’s enemies, we ought not to long for it. We ought to pray that God would show the same mercy to them that he has shown to us who believe, who also, by virtue of the fall and of our sin, deserve nothing but temporal and eternal punishment.
11. Is then God not also merciful?
God is indeed merciful,1 but He is likewise just;2 His justice therefore requires that sin which is committed against the most high Majesty of God, be also punished with extreme, that is, with everlasting punishment both of body and soul.
1 Exod 34:6,7. 2 Exod 20:5. Ps 5:5,6. 2 Cor 6:14-16. * Revelation 14:11.
When faced with the question of the divine wrath, the catechism asks the same question we do: my, that seems harsh. What about mercy? It’s funny how sinners, who so often sit in judgment over God and man, suddenly become interested in mercy when faced with relentless justice.
To answer the question, the catechism turns to the divine attributes. This is an important move in two ways. First, it says something about how Reformed theology works and how we understand Scripture. God has a nature. There are things that are true of God in perpetuity. We can say true things about God that were true a million years ago, that are true today, and that shall be true forever. Unlike the god of early modernity (who is either wholly hidden from us or wholly identified with the world) and unlike the god of late modernity (who is the creation of our subjectivity, he/she/it is what we perceive, wish, hope him/her/it to be), the God of Scripture simply is. The god of open theism might be, if we’ll cooperate. The god of process theism is becoming. The god of late modernity is contingent. In contrast to the Reformed faith, which denies that God has “parts or passions,” the god of late modernity suffers (patior, to suffer). The god of late modernity, of our time, is complex. He/she/it is never anything, never fully realized, and always contingent. He/she/it needs us. The god of late modernity is more like Woody Allen than he/she/it is like the Yahweh of holy Scripture.
The Reformed faith is neither early modern (rationalist or empiricist) nor late modern (subjectivist). The Reformed faith seeks to be biblical and Scripture does reveal God to be merciful to sinners. Exodus 2);6 describes him as “”Showing mercy to a thousand generations” (Ex 20:6). Scripture says that his name (i.e. who he is) is “compassionate, gracious, slow to Anger…” (Ex 34:6-7). God does relent from his judgments and justice, but that relenting, that restraint of wrath, that not giving to the unjust what they deserve, is premised on the satisfaction of justice. Where that is not present, mercy is not possible. However it may seem to us, mercy is not arbitrary because the divine justice is not arbitrary, nor are they grounded in something extrinsic to God. This is the great mistake of all rationalist theologies. They always want to try to save God from the charge of being arbitrary by showing how God’s acts can be justified by some standard outside of God. That seems satisfactory until we realize that if God must give account to some univocal standard of justice that binds him and us, then that standard must be God! The cost of rescuing God from the charge of being arbitrary is to lose God himself.
No, the standard to which God answers is himself, his own nature. He never acts contrary to it and he always acts according to it. It’s true that we don’t know God’s justice exhaustively, because we don’t know God exhaustively. We only know him as he reveals himself to us. We can correlate what he does with what he has revealed to us, but when our correlation fails, we must submit to God. We can and may never stand in judgment over God because such an attempt presumes that we know more about God than he knows about himself. Just to say these words shows how foolish such thinking is.
God is his divine attributes. He is just and he is merciful. His justice is merciful and his mercy is just. They meet perfectly in him. Yes, God is merciful, but he is equally just. Scripture says, “I am a jealous God…” (Ex 20:5). “He does not leave the guilty unpunished…” (Ex 34:7). In other words, God’s definition of justice is himself. We may live in a subjectivist time but God does not care. He did not submit to the demands of the Enlightenment that he justify himself and he won’t submit to the demands of the post-Enlightenment that he justify himself. No, we must be justified by him. God is just and the justifier.
God is merciful, but his mercy is premised on justice. His justice must be satisfied. Outside of that satisfaction there is no mercy. God is just. He has provided that that satisfaction of his justice. God is merciful; he has provided that satisfaction of his justice. You did not provide it.
Listen to me Christian: He could have demanded that you provide it. He did not. He provided satisfaction for his justice. Christ Jesus satisfied the justice of God. He did righteousness, he loved God and neighbor, he walked humbly with his God. We did not. He obeyed for us. His obedience is imputed to all who trust in him and in his finished work for sinners.
Listen to me you unbelievers. God is just. He will not be mocked. If you will not trust in Jesus the satisfier of God justice, then you must satisfy the justice of God yourself. Is it unjust? Did God sin? Did God rebel? Was it God or you who cursed your neighbor this morning (on the freeway)? Was it God or you who committed adultery (with your eyes and heart)? Was it God or you who stole from the cash register? Was it God or was it you who coveted your neighbor’s new car? That’s what I thought. God gave you life, he gave you breath. Despite your sin and rebellion he has provided for you generously and how do you thank him? By demanding that he do more, that he meet your standards!
In our age we are quick to dispense with the justice of God because it does not fit our paradigm. “It’s all good” we say. No, it isn’t all good. We’re not all good. God is good and we are not and therein lies the problem. “Dude, lighten up!” That’s what they said as the rain began to fall. They mocked Noah, right up to the time that they couldn’t swim any longer, as the water began to cause the Ark to float. Truth be told they, like we, probably shook their fist at God to the last, cursing him for not meeting their standard of justice even as he was in the act of holding them to his. Denying reality to the last.
12. Since then by the righteous judgment of God we deserve temporal and eternal punishment, how may we escape this punishment and be again received into favor?
God wills that His justice be satisfied;1 therefore we must make full satisfaction to the same, either by ourselves or by another.2
1 Exodus 20:5. Exodus 23:7. 1 Romans 8:3,4.
With this question we begin considering the second part of the catechism or the “grace” section of “guilt, grace, and gratitude.”
One of the great misconceptions about the Augustinian doctrine of divine sovereignty, which was re-stated by the Protestant Reformers and which came to expression in the Reformed confessions, is that it makes God arbitrary or capricious.
Without reflection or if we start from the wrong place, the acts of God might seem arbitrary. After all, during the fires, one house was taken and one was left behind. It’s not evident that there is any way to say that this house was taken but that one was left because of anything intrinsic to each house. It’s a mystery of providence. Of course folk frequently and falsely set up cause and effect relations to explain providence but Jesus isn’t having any of it (see John 9).
This fact, however, does not mean that we cannot say anything about God’s justice nor does it mean that God is really capricious. The charge that the God of Scripture is capricious rests ultimately on the assumption that unless we can explain his actions then we may sit in judgment upon them and him. In other words, the charge rests upon rationalism. Of course we cannot explain all of God’s acts and we cannot explain fully any of them! His ways are are higher than our ways. His thoughts are not our thoughts. If he did explain himself fully it would consume us. We are not capable of understanding.
If we consider that God always acts according to his nature, then he cannot be said to be arbitrary, especially if we concede that God’s understanding of his justice transcends our ability to comprehend it. That is a great difference between the triune God of Holy Scripture revealed in Christ Jesus and Allah or fate. The god of Islam really is capricious. He may forgive or he may not. No one can know. Allah cannot be known. He is utterly hidden. Indeed, he isn’t even really personal. The alleged identity of Yahweh and Allah is a great myth of liberalism and universalism. Such a claim is an insult both to Christianity and to Islam.
The God of Scripture is, in himself, hidden from us but he also reveals himself to us and what he reveals to us is true. There is a great divide between the Creator and the creature. We cannot know things as God knows them and we cannot know God as he knows himself, but we can know God because he has come to us and made himself known. He has revealed himself in creation and in redemption and chiefly in his Son, the Word: Jesus the Messiah.
We can correlate God’s promises to his saving acts in redemptive history. We can and must count him faithful to fulfill his law and his promises. He threatens judgment for sin. He threatens death for sin and he fulfills that curse (Gen 2:17; Exod 20:5). The whole history of the Israelite holy war against Canaan is the history of God’s righteous judgment upon unbelief and sin. He says: “…I will not acquit the guilty” (Exod 23:7). Every human being is personally obligated to produce perfect righteousness before God (Ex 34:7; Ez 18.4,20; 2 Thess 1:8-10; Gal 3:10). Unlike Allah, the God who is, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, is not arbitrary. He cannot contradict himself. He cannot be what he is not. He cannot do what is contrary to his nature and his nature is just. The universal testimony of Scripture is that God’s righteousness must be satisfied.
Scripture also testifies, however, that God is gracious and merciful. He is merciful in that he does not give to all sinners what they deserve: hell (thanks to Danny Hyde for repeatedly pointing this out on Sunday mornings!) and he is gracious in that he gives to sinners what they cannot earn, his favor and out of his de-merited favor he himself supplies the righteousness required by his justice. I’m grateful to the person at the recent Gospel-Driven Conference at Ponte Vedra PCA who pointed out after one of the sessions that, in Ezek 16:63, Yahweh Elohim promises that he himself will atone for the sins of his people. Of course we remember the scene in Genesis 15 when Yahweh himself passes between the pieces, taking upon himself the obligation to fulfill the promise and to suffer the penalty of violation of the covenant.
This is the difference between biblical religion and all other religions. Only the God of Scripture promises to save his people by fulfilling the obligations of his law for them. All other faiths set up systems whereby we must do for ourselves or, as in the case of Rabbinic and Christian moralism, God gives grace so that we can do so ourselves.
In the biblical faith, however, God meets the terms of his righteousness for us. This is where grace and righteousness meet: in Christ. For us he became both righteous law-keeper (Second/Last Adam) and the Mediator of gracious, free salvation sola fide to and for all those for whom he came, whom the Father gave to him from all eternity.
The catechism says “God wills….” Our classic theologians spoke of God’s beneplacitum or his “good pleasure.” Sinners cannot stand before before a righteous and holy God. Not only does his nature make it that only the righteous can stand before God but also the divine will. God wills according to his nature, but the introduction of the reference to the divine will is very important. God is king and his will is sovereign. This a great lesson for our age.
Beginning perhaps with Erasmus, the modern age made the human will the arbiter of all things. In late modernity, following Nietzsche, we have reduced life to a struggle of the will. Modernity has consistently attempted to make God “come to heel” as it were, to domesticate him, to make his will subservient to ours. This is an ancient impulse. It is the program of hell, of course, packaged nicely in the garden and re-packaged for every age. The Scriptural testimony is overwhelming. God willed and spoke creation into being. God knows what he wills and wills what he knows. From the beginning humans have been obligated, by virtue of their mere humanity, their finitude, to submit to the divine will.
The turn to the divine will here is significant because it says something else about our understanding of Scripture. If God’s will is free, it is free. It is unconditioned. This “unconditionedness” or liberty (Luther) is behind grace. He is is not obligated to save any of us. He does so because he freely wills to do so. This idea of the freedom of the divine will is essential to the catechism’s definition of grace. The medieval doctrine was that grace is a substance (either created or uncreated) with which we are infused, with which we must cooperate, unto eventual justification. The Protestants re-defined grace as unmerited, de-merited divine favor. It is not a substance but a divine attitude. This moves justification and salvation away from the problem of being and into the legal and moral sphere.
Before the fall, we were in a state of favor or divine approval. By virtue of sin we could no longer be in God’s favor. In order to be restored to a state of divine approval the divine justice needed to be satisfied.
Again this way of speaking reminds us that for Reformed theology, in contrast for that which often passes for Reformed teaching today, there is no dichotomy between legal relations and personal relations. The latter is premised upon the former. Sin destroyed our legal standing with God. The law must be fulfilled and the penalty paid in order to restore us to favor.
Who must do it? The catechism, following Paul in Rom 2:13, teaches that it is the “doers of the law who will be justified.” The promise of the law is as relentless as the demand of the law. Of course, by virtue of sin we are incapable of performing what the law requires, but that doesn’t disable the promise and demand of the law.
Should there be a human being who was not disabled by sin, he could meet the terms of the law and satisfy it’s demands and receive its promised rewards. There will be more about this under the following questions. An even greater problem is whether what is done by one human can be transferred to another. There have always been skeptics when it comes to imputation and our age is no exception. There have been some pastors who have flatly denied the necessity of imputation (e.g. Rich Lusk).
Of course the Heidelberg Catechism does not share such skepticism. It teaches the doctrine of imputation explicitly. On this see Covenant, Justification, and Pastoral Ministry. Neither does the Apostle Paul share this skepticism. If Adam’s sin can be imputed to all humans, then the righteousness of Christ can be imputed to believers (Rom 5:12-21).
13. Can we ourselves make this satisfaction.
By no means, on the contrary, we daily increase our guilt.1
1 Job 9:2, 3. Job 15:15,16. Matt 6:12. * Matt 16:26.
Only Christianity accounts for sin.
All sub-Christian (i.e. Christian heresies) and non-Christian religions ultimately deny either the effect of sin or its reality. The Christian heresies (e.g. Pelagianism) denies the power of sin and the federal-legal relations between Adam and us. Non-Christian religions (e.g. Islam) tend to deny sin altogether. It’s pretty difficult to teach a religion of human effort and a thoroughgoing doctrine of sin. The compromise between the biblical and Christian doctrine of sin (that sin is lawlessness and necessarily produces death) and non-biblical views of sin has come to be known as semi-Pelganianism. Speaking anachronistically several of the leading rabbis of the first century were semi-Pelagian. They believed in salvation by grace and cooperation with grace. This doctrine of salvation became the dominant soteriology in the medieval church and it was to this error that the Remonstrants and the neonomians returned in the 17th century. It is to this same sort of semi-Pelagianism that the “covenantal moralists” of our day (i.e. the NPP and FV) would lead us.
It is against the errors of Pelagianism and semi-Pelagianism that the catechism says that, “on the contrary, we daily increase our guilt.” Where most of the medieval church and the Council of Trent had it that we sinners could, if we would, increase our merit before God by grace and cooperation with grace, we confess that, were it up to our doing, our cooperating, our accumulation of intrinsic merit, it is impossible. The only merit that is of any use is the merit of another, a merit that is extrinsic to us. As sinners all we can do is to daily increase our liability before God. Apart from the unmerited favor of God imputing Christ’s perfect righteousness to us, we would be utterly lost.
From the biblical view of sin and its consequences we must not only reject the obvious error of Pelagianism (the denial of sin) but also semi-Pelagianism in all its forms because it makes grace a palliative but, because, in semi-Pelagianism, it ultimately depends upon our cooperation, it is not salvation.
In the Reformed faith, grace is really grace because sin is really sin.
14. Can any mere creature make satisfaction for us?
None, for first, God will not punish any other creature for the sin which man committed;1 and further, no mere creature can sustain the burden of God’s eternal wrath against sin 2 and redeem others from it.
1 Heb 2:14-18. 2 Ps 130:3.
Much of the history of Israel is a history of blood. Moses shed Egyptian blood to save the life of an Israelite slave. Yahweh delivered Israel out of the house of slavery through bloodshed. Joshua and the Judges shed Canaanite blood as they conquered the promised lnad. David was a man of blood as he assumed and defended his throne. The entire Old Testament (Mosaic) cultic (religiious) system was bloody. Indeed, the quantity of animal blood shed by priests in the service of Yahweh was so great that it has become a scandal to modern sensibilities.
Understanding something of that bloody history of redemption is essential for understanding the death of our Lord Jesus the Messiah. The reason there was so much bloodshed under the Old Covenant is not because, as the gnostics alleged, there was a venal and cruel OT god from whom we have been delivered in the New Covenant. After all, the Old Covenant prophets themselves reminded us that God does not “eat the flesh of bulls” or “drink the blood of goats” (Ps 50:13; Isa 1:11). For this reason Hebrews 10:4 reminds us that “it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.”
No, the reason for all the Old Covenant bloodshed was to make a two-sided point and the first side of that point was and is that the Creator God, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, the God who is, the God who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is absolutely righteous and that his justice must be satisfied. The second side of the point is that the sacrifice of animals is, of itself, futile toward that end.
One thing conferred significance to the sacrifice of animals under the typological administrations of the covenant of grace (i.e. those epochs of redemptive history from after the fall until the inauguration of the New Covenant): the obedience and death of Jesus the Messiah as the lamb of God. Every single animal sacrifice, beginning with the slaughter of an animal and the covering of our first parents Adam and Eve in bloody animal skins, anticipated and was given significance only by the reality that would one day appear. Every time some sinful priest slaughtered some animal in the Jewish temple its meaning was fundamentally not that with which the priest or the people invested in it. Its meaning, its utility, its power lie only in the typological connection it had to the final, eschatological (i.e. that which is from heaven) historical sacrifice of Christ.
All this is to say that there are two schools of thought relative to the typological sacrifices which we should reject. First, we should reject the old liberal notion that what made the sacrifices significant was the personal, subjective meaning invested in them by those who offered them or by those for whom they were offered. In other words, we should reject the Schleiermachian notion that what made them significant is the way they helped one subjectively realize a great sense of divine dependence. No, however interesting it might be to speculate about the subjective meaning the act of sacrifice might have had for the people or the priests, it is basically irrelevant for understanding them. We really only know two things about those who participated in the typological administrations: they believed and somehow looked forward to the incarnation and entered into the new covenant by faith (Heb 11) or they did not believe and, in that case, to such, the sacrifices were useless.
The second school of thought regarding the sacrificial system that we should reject is that notion that somehow the sacrificial system was the reality to which redemptive history will one day return. It completely turns the biblical self-understanding on its head to think that Jesus’ self-sacrifice was only provisional and temporary or that that one day the temple, typological system will be restored. No, the entire book of Hebrews makes it clear repeatedly and unequivocally that the entire typological system existed for one purpose: to point to the reality, to point to Christ and his sacrifice as temple, priest, and lamb. Yes, we must understand Jesus’ life and death in the light of the typological system but the spiritual and theological and historical meaning of the typological system is derived from its relation to Christ and his once-for-all sacrifice.
Our Bloody Religion pt 3 (HC 14)
14. Can any mere creature make satisfaction for us?
None, for first, God will not punish any other creature for the sin which man committed;1 and further, no mere creature can sustain the burden of God’s eternal wrath against sin 2 and redeem others from it.
1 Heb 2:14-18. 2 Ps 130:3.
So far we’ve seen that the efficacy of divine institution of typological animal sacrifices, prior to the incarnation of God the Son, was dependent upon the coming fulfillment of those sacrifices in Christ.
The point of working through the meaning of the sacrificial system is to deal with the problem presented by the fact that it was not lambs and goats who sinned against God. It was human beings, image bearers, who violated the covenant of works (or life or nature). The consequence of sin was death, but it was not humans who were slaughtered in the Jewish temple. So what was happening in the Jewish cultus? God was anticipating the final, once-for-all sacrifice made by God the Son incarnate and the culmination of the once-for-all punishment of sin.
God was not obligated to save any. De potentia absoluta (regarding the absolute divine power) he might passed by or reprobated all humans fallen in Adam and he would have been just in doing so. Nevertheless, God in his mercy (not giving the punishment due) and grace (showing favor that is not due) willed to redeem a people for himself. Having willed to redeem a people for himself and because it was humans, and not lambs and goats, who sinned, the divine justice requires that the same class of beings who committed the sin should make payment for that sin.
Though it was humans who sinned and it is they who owe payment and positive righteousness they do have something in common with lambs and goats: they are all mere creatures. There is an ontological, categorical difference between the being which humans have and the being which God has. To begin, God is. That cannot be said of humans. God was, is, and shall be. His being is not contingent. He is simple, immutable, impassible, eternal, infinite, and immense. None of those attributes are true of any creature. No purely finite, temporal, passible, mutable, complex, and local creature could satisfy the divine wrath and, after the fall, accomplish positive righteousness.
All this is to begin to answer the great question posed by Anselm of Canterbury: Cur Deus Homo? (What the God-Man?) The short answer is that, having willed to redeem his elect, he could do so only in a way that is consonant with his justice. We know something about God’s justice from revelation. There are rough but true analogies to divine justice in nature and clearer indications of it in the typological revelation, e.g. “eye for an eye.” It is common to hear people mock the “eye for an eye.” Ghandi is famous for having said, “An eye for an eye, and soon the whole world is blind,” and while that may be true on one level, that if we each go about seeking absolute justice for every wrong in this world we will destroy it, it’s a poor account of God’s justice. In fact God wills that his justice be satisfied. There’s every indication in the typological revelation that God is completely intolerant of disobedience. The liberals can mock the “slaughterhouse theology” of the OT and of the historic Christian, substitutionary doctrine of the atonement but we may, in turn, call them Marcionites and Gnostics. They may like to think of themselves as having advanced beyond bloodshed and atonement but God has not and there will come a time when they shall wish with all they are that they had not been more clever than God.
A Mediated Religion
15. What kind of a mediator and redeemer then must we seek?
One who is a true1 and righteous man, 2 and yet more powerful than all creatures, that is, One who is also true God.3
11 Cor 15:21, 22, 25, 26. 2 Jer 33:16. Isaiah 53:11. 2 Cor 5:21. Heb 7:15,16.
One of the more puzzling and overlooked features of the Barthian, neo-evangelical, and covenantal moralist (i.e. FV) denial of the doctrine of the pre-lapsarian covenant of works is that it tends to deny, or at least downplay, the righteousness of God and it basically re-tells the entire story of Scripture by changing the plot. Denying the covenant of works tends to make God appear to be arbitrary. To be sure, the God of Scripture is absolutely free to act according to his nature. We creatures are not authorized to determine in advance what God may or may not do except to say that he cannot deny himself and he cannot lie. He cannot be what he is not. Within those parameters there are a great number of things that God might do that we cannot predict. God’s ways are not our ways. His thoughts are not our thoughts. These are fundamental Scriptural data. To deny, however, that God is arbitrary is hardly to deny his freedom or, as some like to say, to “put God in a box.”
We don’t think of God as arbitary because we think of him as he has revealed himself in his Word. We don’t think that he has revealed himself exhaustively, of course. We understand from Scripture (e.g. Deut 29:29) that he has revealed himself sufficiently to allow us to speak about him truly. We cannot explain all that he has done or will do in his providence but we do know him truly and we can correlate what he has done in redemptive history with what he said about himself in the canonical Word.
According to the Reformed reading of Scripture, the God of the Bible entered into a covenant relation with humanity in creation, before the fall. This covenant relation was bounded by a law: love God with all your faculties and love neighbor as yourself. It was expressed in terms of trees. Adam was free to eat from any tree, even the tree of life, but he was forbidden from eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. This was a commandment, a law. Our Belgic Confession calls this the “commandment of life.” It seems undeniable that Adam was in a legal relationship with God. The law gave permission, “eat from any tree” and a restriction: “except for this one.” There was implied blessedness for obedience and this blessedness was symbolized by the tree of life. The curse of law breaking was explicitly revealed: “the day you eat thereof, you shall surely die.” Adam was in a covenant and it was not a legal covenant. What was required of him was legal righteousness.
Of course Adam himself presents another great problem for modernity. We confess that Adam was an historical figure. We confess that because the Bible teaches it. The temptation of modernity has been to place ourselves in judgment over the narrative of Scripture and to say, in effect, “We know a priori that the Adam figure of the creation narrative, of the garden narrative, must be a mythic way of expressing a spiritual truth. Does the Bible tell us fables for the purposes of teaching moral and spiritual truths? No. We should be honest, modernity tempts to deny the historicity of Adam. Dame Moderna comes to us suggesting that if we will only renounce (like Barth) our allegiance to an historical Adam, we shall be regarded as ever so much more reasonable and hip. I keep saying “temptation” because that is exactly what it is. It’s a covenant. If we will do x (renounce a historical Adam), Dame Moderna will do y (accept us as equals).
We must ask ourselves, “Is the bargain worth it?” What do we gain by accepting the proposed covenant? Is this the end of the deal or will Dame Moderna come to us with other, consequent covenants? Will she stop at Adam or will she press relentlessly for us to “cash in” the rest of redemptive-history? Of course the story of modern theology answers the question. Dame Moderna is not a only a temptress she is a tyrant. She has not been satisfied with doing away with an historical Adam. Starting with Adam she has ridden through the history of redemption, as it were, with an eraser doing away with very existence of the “Hebrews,” the Exodus, the flood (local or universal), and all forms of supernatural religion.
The other puzzling feature about the modern revision of Reformed theology is related to the first. It is an adaptation of the first. Just as the very idea of an historical Adam offends modern sensibilities, so too the idea of legal relation to God at the outset of human existence offends. The modern creed has a few basic tenets: the universal fatherhood of God, the universal brotherhood of man, and human progress. Implicit in the biblical story of a law-giving God and a law-breaking federal representative man is distinction. There is no reconciling the “law” story of the first man with the “grace” story of all men. If the first man was the legal representative of all humans and if he, and we in him, broke that original law, then it cannot be that all humans are now universally accepted by God. Indeed, according to Scripture the exact opposite is true. All humans are, in Adam, universally condemned by God.
Thus, to accept the biblical story as we have it is to place ourselves at odds with the whole sweep and spirit of modernity. For this reason we should be skeptical of anyone who, under the auspices of ostensibly being “more biblical” invites us to reject the reading of the Adam narrative as the story of a law-giving God and a law-breaking man.
The siren son of the biblicist is seductive. His tune says, “I am more biblical than thou.” The second movement sings, “I am simply following the narrative of the Bible.” He sings of paying “more attention to the history of redemption” and finally of “getting away from dogmatic preconceptions.”
Those are attractive songs but anyone who knows anything about the history of human thought realizes that however attractive such rhetoric might be to myopic moderns it’s a fantasy. It could only be attractive to those withe the attention span of a gnat. Humans always read the Bible in a context. Included in that context is an ecclesiastical setting. If someone is not reading and writing about Scripture from some ecclesiastical context, why would we so credit their conclusions as to allow them to fundamentally re-shape our reading of Scripture?
This is not to say that we cannot and should not learn from church-less Bible readers but learning is not the same thing as fundamentally re-writing our theology. Thus, if those who propose to re-write our theology do so from some ecclesiastical context then they also do so from a theological context. There is no ecclesiastical tradition that does not also have a theological tradition associated with it, even if it is to claim that they “just follow the Bible.”
So, every tempting proposal to revise Reformed theology by, e.g. doing away with the covenant of works, comes from some theological point of view and inasmuchas it comes from an ecclesiastical setting, it also entails some sort of confession, however brief or inadequate it may be. Thus no one “just” reads the Bible. The very claim is inherently dishonest. Just for fun, however, let’s think about listening to someone who is reading the Bible in a church of one, by himself. Why would this approach to Scripture be attractive to anyone with any sort of connection to the visible, institutional church? One of the things with which I try to impress my students is that the catholic church (in all times and places) has always read the Bible. Indeed, all the heretics, the Montanists, the Sabellians, the Arians, and the Pelagians quoted Scripture. The Anabaptitsts and the Socinians all said that they were “more biblical” than the Reformation churches.
It is not a matter of whether we are reading the Scriptures, closely, carefully, in historical context, in canonical (redemptive-historical) context, paying attention to the grammar, and comparing one passage with another, it’s a question of where we are doing so and with what church and to what end and with what confession? This is not to counsel skepticism. Reformation according to the Word does happen and it must happen. This is simply an argument to challenge the assumption that late Moderns (particularly individualist, autonomous, egalitarian Americans) seem to accept uncritically, i.e. that the lone, isolated, creedally-challenged interpreter is somehow to be privileged over the historic Reformed confessional reading of Scripture. The confessionalist reading of Scripture is much less indebted to or enslaved by the culture and assumptions of late/liquid modernity than the autonomous biblicist bent on narcissistically re-shaping Reformed theology in his own image.
Justice and Nature
16. Why must he be a true and righteous man?
Because the justice of God requires 1 that the same human nature which has sinned should make satisfaction for sin, but one who is himself a sinner, cannot satisfy for others.2
1Rom 5:15. 2 Isaiah 53:3-5.
There are two very interesting words here, “justice,” and “nature.” These two words really quite foreign to late moderns. There is a great deal of talk about “justice,” but it is typically conceived in relativistic terms. Justice is reckoned to be a human convention. I suspect about the last time anyone talked about justice and meant it in the older sense of “reflecting the divine moral order” was perhaps Dr King, when he gave the “I Have a Dream” speech on the mall in Washington, DC. Since that time, through the turmoil of the 60s and the radically subjective turn of much philosophy and most of the culture, many of us no longer believe in such things as a divinely consistuted standard of right and wrong. We suspect that it’s a merely human convention foisted upon by some conspiracy or other. The idea of “nature” has suffered a similiar fate for similar reasons.
That late modern subjectivists or modernist skpetics (e.g. radical empiricists) reject the existence of such things as “justice” and “nature” should not surprise us. Unbelief is bound to swing between rationalism (the autonomy of the human intellect relative to all other authorities) and empiricism (the autonomy of human sense experience relative to all other authorities) with interludes of subjectivism (e.g. Romanticism in the 19th century and deconstructionism today).
Christians, however, are bound to believe in such things as “justice” and “nature” because we confess that “in the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” For Scripture, and consequently for the Reformed faith, God simply is. He is not a convention. He is not a product of the intellect or a mere deduction from human sense experience. Yes, we may see from nature and conscience that he is and that he has issued a universal moral law, but God is not the result of human rationalism or empiricism or subjectivism. God is that he is (Ex 3). He will be what he will be. He has a nature. He has attributes of which justice is one.
Because God has a nature and because we are his image bearers, we also have a nature. There is such a thing as human nature. We don’t have to pick sides in the “nature v nurture” debate. We affirm that there is such a thing as human nature in which we all share but we also affirm that it has been profoundly marred and corrupted by the fall. It has not been utterly wiped out. The vestiges remain and they are renewed by grace alone, in Christ alone. God the Creator has assigned a “nature” to us. It is a given. It is a limit. It is a boundary. We cannot escape it and we are morally obligated to it. We have the same nature as Adam. He we related to him legally and naturally, organically. We were “in him” legally and naturally. When he fell, we fell. His actions had profound consequences for all of us.
We share this common humanity not only with Adam, but also with Christ. He has the same nature as we. He isn’t merely “like” us (though he is that). Rather he is one with us. His humanity shares the same finitude as ours. He was tempted as we are tempted (Heb 4:15). He tired. He wept. He ate. He was in the womb. He was “very man.” He took his humanity, by the wonderful operation of God the Spirit, “from the Virgin Mary.” He suffered. He died. These are all things that happen to real humans, with real, true, flesh and blood. This is the consistent message of Hebrews:
Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery. For surely it is not angels that he helps, but he helps the offspring of Abraham. Therefore he had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people. For because he himself has suffered when tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.
One of the great errors of the medieval church was that it lost sight of Christ’s true humanity and erected for herself a pantheon of intercessors in place of Christ via the cult of saints and of the BVM. As the Belgic Confession reminds us in Article 26:
So then, sheer unbelief has led to the practice of dishonoring the saints, instead of honoring them. That was something the saints never did nor asked for, but which in keeping with their duty, as appears from their writings, they consistently refused.
We should not plead here that we are unworthy–for it is not a question of offering our prayers on the basis of our own dignity but only on the basis of the excellence and dignity of Jesus Christ, whose righteousness is ours by faith.
God the Son took on our humanity (not something like humanity as the gnostics and docetists continue to say) for a purpose: to satisfy the divine justice. Just as fixed as the divine nature is, so fixed is the divine justice, i.e. the divine standard of right and wrong. This is an immutible (unchangeable and unchanging) standard of righteousness. In the 1960s it was a common colloquialism to call something “righteous.” The colloquial use of the adjective this way helped to create the impression that “righteous” or “righteousness” was just a convention, i.e., something that some one or some ones made up and that, with a change of opinion, it could be changed. In the late modern period, when the “hermeneutic of suspicion” reigns, everything is thought to be a mere convention or agreement.
There are conventions. Everything we think is not an eternal verity. Stop signs could be green. That stop signs are red is a convention. Red stop signs are not rooted “in the nature of things.” The fact, however, that there are conventions doesn’t mean that everything is a convention. “You shall not commit murder” is not a mere convention. It’s not as if, should we all sit and think about it and talk it over, we might decide that canibalism is permissible. Somethings are contrary to the nature of things. If one jumps off a high point, one will fall. It’s in the nature of things as constituted by God. Could God have willed things to be different? Yes. He might not have instituted gravity, but since he himself has a nature, and because his moral laws have reflect that nature, we cannot say the same thing about justice and righteousness. These things have a fixity, grounded in the divine nature, which we know via his voluntary self-disclosure (revelation), that even “natural laws” might not have. Theoretically things could be other than they are, but not so God and not so his moral law.
Question 16 Part 2: Satisfaction for Sin
Few things rankle the modern mind more than the idea that God’s justice must be “satisfied.” The old liberals (and some new feminists! See Lucy Reid, She Changes Everything, 16) derided this notion as “slaughterhouse theology.” The truly modern, autonomous person not not submit his sovereign self (or her sovereign, divine self) to El Shaddai, to Yahweh Sabbaoth of the Hebrew Scriptures nor to the “God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” and certainly not to any God who demands satisfaction by a bloody death of a representative substitute.
The autonomous modern notwithstanding, Scripture unashamedly portrays the God of the Bible not only as just but as angry with sin and sinners “every day” (Ps 7:11; AV). God saves the “upright” or the just (Ps 11:7). That is the consistent testimony of Scripture. The Psalmists claim time and again to have been righteous, to have fulfilled the will of the Lord and on that basis more or less insist that God recognize this fact and deliver them from enemies (see Ps 18:21, 23; 73:13; 119:56). This pattern of revelation is grounded in the original condition of humanity. We were created and constituted righteous and holy and able to obey. We were given a law that we could obey. We freely chose to disobey, due to no fault of God or in his creation. Thus the fall is a great mystery.
In the fall our state or condition changed profoundly, but God’s righteous demand for complete obedience did not. Further, God’s law having been violated, not only did the demand for conformity continue but now there arose a requirment for satsifaction, damages if you will. The modern mind is outraged at a God who demand damages but I’ll bet that if I willfully (or even accidentally) rammed my car in the modernists car, that so-easily offended modernist would not hesitate to demand satisfaction from me! She would demand my auto insurance information and that my insurer would make right her car or provide her with a new one. Further, if, by hitting Madame Modernist, I violated the law, the authorities would punish me for failing to obey the law and after gaining satsifaction from me, the law would continue to require that I obey it.
Why is doctrine of double imputation or the imputation of the active and passive (suffering) obedience of Christ so difficult? We see it every day! I get ahead of myself.
Exodus 29 lays out in exquisite detail the requirments of Yahweh for the “sin offering.” The bull is ritually slaughtered outside the camp (v. 14). An entire ram is to be burnt on the altar of Yahweh. As if to rub the faces of the Enlightened in his most unenlightened religious (cultic) ritual, Scripture says in v.18, “It is a burnt offering to Yahweh. It is a pleasing aroma, a food offering to Yahweh.” The God of the Hebrews, the God of the Bible, is said to be “pleased” or even worse (to the modern) “soothed,” i.e. propitiated by a bloody, firey offering.
This is the stuff that drives the clever Socinians and Unitarians mad. This is also the very religious system to which Jesus, whom they would reduce to a mere wise man, rabbi, or teacher subscribed body and soul. The modernists object to the blood in the temple. Jesus objected to the money changers. Jesus never objected to the bloody temple sacrifices because every day more blood was spilled in the temple, every time a Jew brought an offering, he was testifying to the nature of divine justice and to the need for a perfect sacrifice to bring the entire sacrificial system to a close. Everytime a priest’s razor-sharp knife slit the throught of an innocent lamb, Jesus’ mission to, as the Baptizer said, “the lamb of God” was illustrated and vindicated.
God has a nature. His nature is righteous or just. When offended, the divine justice must be satisfied by a perfect, spotless offering. The consistent and crystal-clear teaching of the the OT prophets and the entire book of Hebrews (e.g. 10) is that the entire sacrificial system was incapable of providing that satisfaction. God was not pleased with the typological sacrifices and offerings. He demanded love, not sacrifice (Hos 6:6). Jesus was that love, not the squishy sort of love favored by the modernists but real, bloody, divine-human love for sinners, willing to take their place. “In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins” (1 John 4:10). The modernists are gnostics. They won’t have that love, propitiating (wrath-turning) love. They want an ethereal love that is no love at all, because they worship a god that is not God at all, who has no justice. They are rebels who yell for justice, but when true justice is presented to them, they turn their heads like children who turn away from healthy food in favor of candy.
17. Why must he also be true God?
That by the power of His Godhead He might bear in His manhood the burden of God’s wrath,1 and so obtain for 2 and restore to us righteousness and life.3
1 Isaiah 53:8. Acts 2:24. 2John 3:16. Acts 20:28. 3 1 John 1:2.
The sub-text of Satan’s offer, in the garden, was power. You see, the covenant of works offered glorified, everlasting, consummated fellowship with God on condition of absolute submission and obedience to God. Adam had to trust God’s promise and he had to obey. The faith that Adam called to exercise was not like the faith that we, after the fall, are called to exercise. Confusing these two things is one of the great errors of all forms of covenantal moralism (e.g., the self-described “Federal Vision” movement and it appears not infrequently among writers who don’t necessarily identify with the FV movement but who share a common rejection of the historic Reformed doctrine of the covenant of works) is that it conflates Adam’s duty to trust the promise of life made to him with the faith believers after the fall have in Christ the Mediator and substitute, the Last Adam. By confusing these two kinds of faith the moralists become Pelagians, they put us after the fall in the same state as we were before the fall.
Glorified union and communion with the Triune God is a kind of power. It is conferred, derived power but it is real power. The Evil One knew that and thus he offered to us an alternative power without submission to God. It was a false, competing, alternative covenant of works. All we had to do was to submit to him, obey him. Follow him. Trust him. In this way a covenant of works was unavoidable. In his case the offer was not actually life, even if it was ostensibly life. The offer was ostensibly of knowledge but it was actually darkness. He offered an alternative source of power.
Thus, it is significant that we confess that by the power of his deity he, Jesus, God the Son, might bear in his humanity the burden of God’s eternal wrath. Power was offered and power is required. In the beginning only God had the real authority and real power to confer eternal life. The Evil One is a complete liar. That’s one of the more remarkable aspects of the fall: the Evil One is and has always been nothing more than a creature. A powerful and dangerous creature to be avoided and ultimately defeated but a creature nonetheless. No mere creature has ever had the authority or the ability (power) to offer or confer eternal life. Only God has that power and only God has that authority.
It is a great proof of Christ’s deity that he repeatedly offered eternal life on his own authority and on the authority of his Father and in his own name, through faith in himself. Why do you think that was? It infuriated the rabbis (and still does). It seemed like impossible arrogance! But where was that outrage in the garden? It’s quite misplaced. Here, in the incarnation, was a wonderful re-enactment of the Garden drama all over again. God the Son came to us and once again offered eternal life, union, and communion. This time the condition of the offer was not “do this and live” but “whosoever believes in me shall never perish.” The condition was trust in the Second Adam, the Final Adam, who would obey for us and who had in himself the power of an indestructible life. This Adam would refuse the temptation of the Evil One. This Adam is once again the Mediator of a covenant—not a covenant of works but a covenant of grace.
Before glory, however, there is death and the business of obtaining righteousness and life for us. The same Son who, in the garden, offered to us consummated glory and life now had to “obtain” or earn for us righteousness and life. Life, of the sort under discussion here, always had to be “obtained.” Adam had to obey, he had to submit in order to receive consummated life. Do you see the difference between life before the fall and life after the fall? Before the fall we had no need of “righteousness” because we were righteous. We confess (because Scripture teaches) that we were created “in righteousness and true holiness.” Now, however, righteousness had to be obtained. That’s why our tradition spoke of a covenant of works or a covenant of life or a covenant of law. The first Adam had to obey the law, to fulfill a covenant of works, to do battle with the Evil One in his Father’s holy place (the garden). He refused and made a false covenant with a false god—who is no god at all.
We should not miss the implied force of the expression “for us.” The “us” there are those who believe. Jesus came for, obeyed for, died for, and was raised for “us,” i.e., those who believe. The intent of the incarnation, actively passive (suffering) obedience and extent of the atonement is not addressed in detail in the catechism but there are clues. Those who struggle with Q. 37 should remember to read it in light of Q. 17 and globally in light of the expression “for us” (QQ. 31, 42, 45, and indeed in Q. 37 itself!). That prepositional phrase communicates a great deal about the original intent of the framers of the catechism and indicates how it ought to be understood today. Truly, the Synod of Dort was not changing Reformed doctrine of but elaborating upon what we already confessed.
Like the First Adam, the Second and Final Adam had to trust his Father but, like the first Adam, the faith he exercised was not the faith that we sinners exercise. The faith he exercised was that his Father’s promise was good, that he would reward his obedient Son with life. The empty tomb and the ascension of Christ are all the evidence we need that our Father’s promise was good. The obedience he rendered to his Father was not, as the moralists would have it, for himself, to qualify himself. He was born qualified! No, as Paul says, he was born of a woman, under the law, for us not for himself.
The faith we exercise is also that the Father will reward us with life if we meet the condition of the covenant but the difference for sinners is that the condition is not “do this and live” but “trust him him who has done for sinners.” The difference between the gospel and its corruption is the difference between saying “do this and live” and “trust him him who has done.” The Mediator makes all the difference but all moralists want us to take our eyes off of the Mediator or they want to make the Mediator just another believer, a mere
example. The faith we exercise is not that if we do, God will give but that Jesus, God’s Son, our one Mediator, obeyed for us and that he gives life freely, unconditionally to those who have not done but who trust in him who has done for us.
Jesus, the Second Adam (Rom 5), the Final Adam (1 Cor 15:45) is the life-giving Spirit. He was raised from the dead. He has life in himself to give. He earned the right to give to us life. He has the authority and he has the power and because Adam (and we in him) did not put to death the Evil One the Righteous One had to taste death for us. He did but he also tasted life, on the third day.
Your people will offer themselves freely,
on the day of your power,
in holy garments;
from the womb of the morning,
the dew of your youth will be yours
…He will drink from the brook by the way;
therefore he will lift up his head (Ps 110)
Against the Gnostics and Docetics
17. Why must he also be true God?
That by the power of His Godhead He might bear in His manhood the burden of God’s wrath,1 and so obtain for2 and restore to us righteousness and life.3
1 Isaiah 53:8. Acts 2:24. 2 John 3:16. Acts 20:28. 3 I John 1:2.
Already in the NT the church faced one of its greatest and deadliest heresies: the denial of Jesus’ humanity. The Greeks had room for men becoming gods and human-like behavior among by the gods but they had no room for a God-Man. Many of them had a great deal of trouble with the goodness of creation. They were deeply suspicious of the physical, material world. Many of them tended to regard the physical, material world as inherently corrupt and corrupting merely because of its materiality. The idea of God becoming man was, therefore, impossible, because it was mean that God had become corrupt. They associated the purity a god or the gods with their immateriality. This sort of dualism in being (ontological) between the good immaterial (spiritual) world and the evil material world probably lay behind some of the difficulties in the Colossian congregation that Paul addressed. Certainly the congregations in Asia Minor (central Turkey) to which the Apostle John wrote were troubled by this sort of false dualism (see 1 John 1:1-3; 4:2-3). For John it is “anti-Christ” to deny that Jesus is true God and true man.
Throughout post-Apostolic Christian history the church has continually been troubled by this great heresy. The apologists of the second century (100-200) addressed this error in various forms sometimes lumped under the heading of “Gnosticism.” In the high middle ages a sect, the Albigensians, arose who denied or downplayed Jesus’ humanity. Many of the sixteenth-century Anabaptists taught a theory that Christ had a “celestial” humanity thereby denying the true consubstantiality (i.e., sharing our human substance) between us and Christ. Perhaps the most central conflict between the confessional Reformed and Lutheran theologians and churches was the question of the nature of Jesus’ humanity. It seemed to the Reformed that the Lutheran doctrine of the genus maiestaticus, i.e., that Jesus’ humanity belonged to a class of one. They affirmed that he was true human but that the communication of the divinity with the humanity is such that his humanity is also quite distinct from ours. Thus, the Lutherans affirmed that Christ could know, in his humanity, what God knows the way he alone knows it (theologia archetypa) whereas the Reformed affirmed more clearly that his true humanity is consubstantial with us such that even in his humanity he knows only what humans can know (theologia ectypa). To the Reformed it seemed that the Lutheran Christology verged on Eutychianism (the confusion of the human and the divine natures) and, of course, to the Lutherans, the Reformed were nothing but crytpo-Nestorians (dividing the two natures). We say, however, that we are Chalcedonian (451 AD):
Therefore, following the holy fathers, we all with one accord teach men to acknowledge one and the same Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, at once complete in Godhead and complete in manhood, truly God and truly man, consisting also of a reasonable soul and body; of one substance with the Father as regards his Godhead, and at the same time of one substance with us as regards his manhood; like us in all respects, apart from sin; as regards his Godhead, begotten of the Father before the ages, but yet as regards his manhood begotten, for us men and for our salvation, of Mary the Virgin, the God-bearer; one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, Only-begotten, recognized in two natures, without confusion, without change, without division, without separation; the distinction of natures being in no way annulled by the union, but rather the characteristics of each nature being preserved and coming together to form one person and subsistence, not as parted or separated into two persons, but one and the same Son and Only-begotten God the Word, Lord Jesus Christ; even as the prophets from earliest times spoke of him, and our Lord Jesus Christ himself taught us, and the creed of the fathers has handed down to us.
It is with these categories in mind that the Heidelberg Catechism says what it does about the Son bearing in his humanity the wrath of God against sin. We need a substitute and he must be like us in every respect, since excepted (Heb 4). This is why we speak of “consubstantiality.” He must be one of us. He cannot merely appear to be like us. Why not? Because it was one of us, created in righteousness and true holiness, who sinned, who violated God’s law and incurred the greatest penalty.
According to Scripture, as understood and confessed in the ancient church and by the Reformed churches, the justice of God is such that it must punish disobedience. This is the nature of justice even in our world. If a criminal is obviously, manifestly guilty but not punished we experience outrage. How can that be? If we know what justice is, why do we struggle so with the notion of divine wrath? We do because the modern world has been in revolt against the notion of divine justice (except when it suits us) for two centuries or more. Humans, of course, have been in revolt against God’s justice since the fall but never before, at least since the ascension, have whole societies been at war institutionally with the notion of divine justice. We invoke it (e.g., “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord….”) when it agrees with us but we deny it when it doesn’t.
Scripture testifies repeatedly to the existence and righteousness of God’s judgment. The strongest evidence for it is that Jesus taught it (e.g., Matt 5:22) and more than that he submitted himself to it. How can Jesus be the great moral teacher modernity has tried to make him out to be if he accepted and taught the existence of divine justice and wrath against sin and sinners? If he was a great teacher, as the modernists want us to think, then wasn’t he right about divine justice? If he was wrong about divine justice, as all the modernists say, then how is he a great teacher? Why wasn’t he just another ignorant fundamentalist raver?
Of course Jesus was more than just a teacher. He was our Mediator and substitute. He came in our place. He came, was incarnate, was born, obeyed, died, and was raised for us (Rom 5:8). That prepositional phrase “for us” says it all. Only a substitute does something for us, in our place. If we need something but have to been somewhere else at the same time, we send a substitute, some one to do something we need to be done. That person acts in our place. We experience the blessings of substitution in small ways every day. Husbands and wives act as surrogates for each other constantly (“Sorry, Jen can’t be here tonight, she’s flying to Dallas”). Again, if substitution works on a micro scale, why not on the grandest scale of all time?
Jesus came as our consubstantial substitute and he mediates for us now with God. Paul says that there is “one mediator between God and man, the man Christ Jesus” (1 Tim 2:5). One of the major themes of the book of Hebrews is Jesus’ office and work as our Mediator before the Father. This is why we pray in Jesus’ name. He stands before the Father for us as the representative righteous man for all of his people. He can do so because he bore in his humanity the wrath of God against sin.
The Other Side Of A Cross
17. Why must he also be true God?
That by the power of His Godhead He might bear in His manhood the burden of God’s wrath, and so obtain for and restore to us righteousness and life.
Almost from the beginning of the history of the apostolic church there arose movements that, like the Evil One, sought to suggest that God had made a mistake in creation, that we were not created in righteousness and true holiness. Ever since that terrible conversation with the Evil One we have either been suggesting that God erred in creation or that the fall was really his fault or both.
It isn’t true. We were created in righteousness and true holiness. Scripture says that creation was “good.” The first two humans were good. That’s an important word, especially in the context of the creation narrative and in light of all that transpired. Good is a loaded term there. It carries a number of ideas within it. It means that there was no defect, that it was pleasing to God the way a beautiful piece of art is pleasing to its creator. Chief among the ideas embedded in “good,” however, are “righteous” and “holy.” By righteousness we mean to say that we were legally upright. We were in conformity to the law of God. We had not transgressed. We were liable to no punishment because we had committed no crime. By holiness we we mean to say that we were created morally pure and good. We were without stain or pollution of any kind. On reflection it might seem surprising that we speak of holiness before the fall, since we tend to speak of holiness as a consequence of God’s work in us, by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ, by the Spirit, after the fall. There was, however, holiness before the fall. Remember the creation narrative in Genesis 1. God set aside one day out of seven and called that day holy even before the fall. Even in a morally pure setting, before we had sinned, it was possible to set aside a day as distinct, as special, in order to point to a state of existence beyond our present state. More about that later.
We know from the creation narrative that the Sabbath day, the climax of the creation narrative, was holy. It was different. It was set apart. We know from the creation narrative that Adam and Even were holy. They were set apart. They were pure. They were not, however, glorified or in the consummate or final state. They were in a probationary state. They, and particularly Adam as the representative of all humanity (Rom 5; 1 Cor 15:45), had a test to pass. Should they pass that test, they would enter into the state of blessedness represented by the Sabbath and signified and sealed by the Tree of Life.
Within the apostolic period, however, there arose a dualist movement that taught that the created world was not inherently good. They taught that creation (the material world) as created was inherently corrupt and evil. They did what pagans and many misguided Christians have often done. In effect, without always admitting it, they blamed the Creator rather than the creature for the corruption of the original state. Implicit in the claim that the material, physical world is inherently corrupt is the idea either that God erred or that it is impossible for the material world to be good. Behind those notions is the assumption that humans live on a continuum with the spiritual world and that what we need is not salvation from sin and judgment but more being. In other words, what is really being said is that God held out on us, as it were. That, of course, is exactly what the Evil One said: “God knows that the moment you eat of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, you will be like him and he’s scared.” He was implying that God is a con artist and a liar.
We know, however, who is the con artist and the liar don’t we? This idea that the material world is inherently broken and evil was so pervasive some Christians, perhaps many, incorporated it into their thinking and began to say that Jesus’ humanity wasn’t real. It couldn’t have been.
- Human nature is inherently evil.
- Jesus was good
- Ergo Jesus’ humanity couldn’t have been real.
The first premise is false and therefore the conclusion is wrong. Jesus’ humanity was and is true humanity. Our problem was not that were created badly. Our problem is far more mysterious and difficult to explain! We freely chose to sin. We voluntarily plunged ourselves into death and judgment.
The idea that the material world is evil was so pervasive that the Apostle John wrote 1 John against it. The error grew and by the middle of the Second Century (150 AD) it had developed into a full-blown heretical movement—the greatest of the ancient church—called Gnosticism. They developed a competing version of Christianity wherein salvation was not from sin but from creation and not by trusting in Jesus as our Mediator (substitute) but as one of many bringers of secret knowledge (Gnosticism) through which we could, for a fee, climb up a sort of cosmic ladder into a state of blessedness.
This very sort of teaching is widespread today. Peter Jones has been pointing it for a couple of decades. We have a Gnostic teachers in our town. They’re called “New Age” teachers but they teach almost exactly what the old Gnostics taught in the 2nd century. The Christian Science movement has been teaching Gnosticism for more than a century. More than a few evangelical Christians have incorporated Gnostic ideas into their theology. They’ve turned the faith from a public confession about public, historical truths and realities int o Gnostic secrets that divide the church into sects. They offer secret knowledge about how to climb the ladder into another state of being.
What was offered to us in the beginning was not that we would become competitors to God but that we would enter to a state of blessed communion with him, that we would be transformed by him and that, having passed the test, we would be utterly contented in him.
That future still exists. The way to such blessedness is not by overcoming our humanity but by embracing the truest human, Jesus, the Second Adam, the Mediator, the representative for all those who believe. When we disobeyed, we incurred a just death sentence. He paid that penalty for all who believe. When we trust him as our Substitute, we enter into communion with him through faith, worked by the Spirit. We begin to experience now, intermittently, in the church, in communion with other Christians, some of what will be. When we hear the gospel preached, when we see the sacraments administered, when we receive communion, we get a sense of what was intended and of what will be at the consummation.
God didn’t create this mess. We did. Grace means, however, that he entered into our sin and corruption, not by becoming a sinner, but by remaining righteous and holy, so that by the power of his resurrection, through union with Christ, we might be delivered from the fall and all its consequences. Don’t believe the lie. Creation is not inherently evil, even though sin has grotesquely deformed it. Heaven is not at the end of a ladder. It is on the other side of a cross.
When we’re at odds with another person sometimes things come to such a state that the only thing for it is a go-between, someone who is trusted by both parties. This is true for relations between God and humans. We often look for ways to relate to God. We build statues, we pick people living and dead as a representative for us with God. The Israelites wanted a mediator between themselves and the Lord at Sinai. When the Lord thundered from the darkness and gloom of Sinai, the Israelites recognized that Yahweh had revealed his glory and majesty and they were justly terrified. “If we hear the voice of the Lord our God any more, we shall die.” (Deut 5:25; ESV). In their place they sent Moses in their place, to go to God in their place, to go “hear all that the Lord our God will say, and speak to us all that the Lord our God will speak to you, and we will hear and do it.” (Deut 5:27; ESV).
Moses was a holy man, but he was just a man. He died. He was buried and he remained in his tomb. Moses was a temporary mediator. He anticipated another mediator.
18. But who now is that Mediator, who in one person is true God and also a true and righteous man?
Our Lord Jesus Christ, who is freely given unto us for complete redemption and righteousness.
John 1:17 contrasts Jesus and Moses this way: “For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ” (ESV). Moses came bearing the law. His ministry was characterized by law. We learn more about how to think about that law when we see what John contrasts to the law, “grace and truth.” That’s an interesting contrast because clearly there was grace given to the Israelites under Moses. Deuteronomy 7 makes that clear. The Lord did not choose the Israelites because they had some quality that made them deserving of divine approval. God saved them because of his undeserved favor toward sinners. Nevertheless, John said “grace and truth.” What did he mean? He the second noun clarifies things. As Geerhardus Vos noted long ago, “truth” here (and elsewhere in John’s writings) does not mean, in the first instance, “true propositions as distinct from false propositions” (even though John certainly believed in an wrote true propositions and denied false ones!). Rather, he means something like “ultimate reality as distinct from provisional, temporary illustrations.”
Moses’ mediation between God and humans was temporary. It was illustrative of another Mediator and mediation that would come later. Paul says, “For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus… (1 Timothy 2:5, ESV). Jesus is the man. He is the righteous one. He is the law keeper. He is the one qualified to stand in our place. There isn’t any one else who can stand. The Israelites were honest. They knew that they could not stand before God. We know, if we’re honest with ourselves, that we cannot stand. That’s why we pick mediators, but we’re not even qualified to pick a mediator. Even in our choice of mediators we get it wrong. We pick living humans or dead ones as if they are holy enough to represent us to God. What we’re really saying, however, is that God isn’t that holy, but he is but he is that holy. He is terrible in his holiness. We’ve only had occasional glimpses of it in history. If you’ve ever witnesses a great raging wildfire, that’s a small analogy of God’s holiness. It burns everything it touches. It is relentless and terrifying. It makes everyone want to run to safety. That’s what happened to the Israelites every time they saw flashes of it. That’s what happened in the New Testament when they saw it. Ask the Apostle Paul about it. Ask Ananias and Sapphira about God’s holiness (Acts 5).
No, we can’t choose our mediator, because God has chosen one for us. More than that he has become our Mediator. God the Son took on flesh to become the representative of humanity to God and the representative of God to humanity. When the disciples asked to see the Father, Jesus said, “If you’ve seen me, you’ve seen the Father” (John 14:8–11). He is the true man, the righteous man and he is God and he is so in one person. He isn’t God plus man. He isn’t a sum. He is the God-Man. That’s why there can be no other mediator. No saint, not even blessed Virgin is qualified to represent us to God or God to us. They’re holy believers, glorified before the Lord but just that and no more. If they could talk they would tell you that, they would tell you: don’t pray to me, that’s silly. God the Son became incarnate and you try to talk to me, a mere human? Being dead does not confer divinity on Christians. It only confers glory.
We need a Mediator. The good news is that we have one and in his obedient life and death he substituted for all believers is now presently interceding for us all. In him we have a complete forgiveness, complete righteousness, and complete salvation. If we seek another mediator beside Jesus we are saying that he failed or that he was but a partial mediator. That’s a lie. That’s a defamation of God the Son incarnate. He did not say, “it is begun.” He said, “It is finished.”