That the holy gospel, according to the Heidelberg Catechism, is essentially good news concerning the promise, may be gathered from the statement: “and lastly, has fulfilled it by his only begotten Son.” The gospel was fulfilled in the fullness of time in Jesus Christ our Lord. But this is possible only if the gospel is essentially a promise. And also the fact that the gospel was always proclaimed and received by the heirs of the promise, from the very beginning of history, is plainly taught by the Catechism in this nineteenth answer. The holy gospel is not the same as the Bible. For the Bible did not always exist, in fact, in its present form it exists only a comparatively short time. More than twenty centuries elapsed of the world’s history before there was even a part of the holy Scriptures written, another two thousand years became history before the entire canon of the Bible could be adopted by the Church; and even then and long after, copies of Holy Writ were scarce and expensive. That every believer may rejoice in the possession of a Bible for himself, and may daily read the Scriptures, is of relatively recent date. But although the Bible was not always in existence, there never was a time when the heirs of the promise were without the holy gospel. And let us understand this clearly: they did not have a part of the gospel, but they possessed the entire gospel of the promise from the very beginning of history. It is true that the riches of the gospel were only gradually displayed, proclaimed and understood as the centuries rolled by and the time of the fulfillment approached. All the implications of this glorious gospel of the promise could not all at once be explained and comprehended. But this does not alter the fact that the whole gospel was revealed from the beginning of the world, and not only a part of it. When the seed of a maple tree has sown itself in my garden, and the following year a small plant appears with a slender stem and a couple of small leaves, that little sprout is not a part of a maple tree, but is just as complete a tree as the tall maples that stand forty or fifty feet tall in our front lawn. The same is true of the holy gospel. It was revealed in early times in a simple form, adapted to the needs of the hearers, and it gradually grew in riches of contents, but also that gospel in its simple form was, nevertheless, the entire gospel. And wholly in harmony with this, the Catechism teaches us that God Himself first revealed the holy gospel in Paradise; afterwards published it by the patriarchs and prophets, and represented it by the sacrifices and other ceremonies of the law; and lastly, has fulfilled it by His only begotten Son.
In the light of this proper conception of the holy gospel throughout the ages of history, we can understand why the promise ofwas always called the protevangel, the moederbelofte (mother of promises). It is the first revelation of the entire holy gospel immediately after the fall of our first parents, Adam and Eve, in Paradise. The first man Adam was an image of Him that was to come. He had been created in earthly glory, in covenant friendship with the living God, king over all the earthly creation, and servant of the Lord of all. All creatures served him that he might serve his God. But “being in honor, he understood it not, neither knew his excellency, but 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; and by sin separated himself from God, who was his true life, having corrupted his whole nature; whereby he made himself liable to corporal and spiritual death. And being thus become wicked, perverse, and corrupt in all his ways, he hath lost all his excellent gifts, which he had received from God, and only retained a few remains thereof, which, however, are sufficient to leave man without excuse; for all the light which is in us is changed into darkness.’’ Conf. Belg. 14. By violating the covenant and eating of the forbidden fruit, man had plunged himself into the night of sin and death, from which he could see no way out. And in Adam the whole human race, including also the seed of the promise, the heirs of eternal salvation according to God’s sovereign purpose of election, was carried into the abyss of corruption and death. But God has provided some better thing for these heirs of salvation. And although he causes the whole creation to bear henceforth the curse of His wrath, vanity and death, toil and suffering, yet He maintains His covenant, and at once begins the work of salvation and grace in Christ the Lord. And He proclaims at the same time to the heirs of the promise the holy gospel in the words that announce the utter defeat of the devil: “I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seen; it shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise its heel.” That promise is the whole gospel. Nothing is ever added to this first revelation of the gospel of the promise that is not, in principle, implied in it. And the entire revelation of the holy gospel that follows in succeeding centuries is but the unfolding of the riches of this mother of promises, this protevangel.
And since that time the gospel is always preached, and revealed in ever increasing clarity and fullness of riches. And in the light of this holy gospel the heirs of the promise walk through the darkness of the present night of sin and corruption and death. The way is dark, indeed, and the battle with the children of darkness in this world is often hard and fierce, but God fulfills His promise, works His work of grace and deliverance, and causes the light of the gospel of the promise to strike an ever clearer path through the darkness of the night. He proclaimed the gospel concerning His Son through patriarchs and prophets. He revealed the gospel to them, directly through His Spirit, indirectly through visions and dreams, through angels and by the revelation of the Angel of Jehovah, and through many signs and wonders. Thus the gospel was revealed and proclaimed in the awful world of predeluvian times. The night of suffering and toil, “because of the ground which the Lord hath cursed,” was oppressive; and the struggle with the generation of the children of this world was a bitter one. But in that dark night the heirs of the promise carried the gospel of the promise revealed in paradise with them and the patriarchs of those days proclaimed what they had heard from above of the glad news concerning the promise. In the days of Enos, the son of Seth, men began to call upon the name of the Lord. Enoch walked with God, and already clearly spoke of the coming day of the Lord, and of the redemption of His saints, when he prophesied: “Behold, the Lord cometh with ten thousands of his saints, to execute judgment upon all, and to convince all that are ungodly among them of all their ungodly deeds which they have ungodly committed, and of all their hard, speeches which ungodly sinners have spoken against him.” The seed of the serpent was to suffer defeat, the promise of the gospel was to be fulfilled! Lamech called his son Noah, convinced that in him Jehovah had given them a seed that would comfort them over their work and toil. And, indeed, in Noah God continues and establishes His work of grace. He becomes a preacher of righteousness in the midst of the ungodly world of his days. In his days the seed of the serpent is crushed, and the seed of the woman is saved in the ark. Noah becomes heir of the world through faith. With him God establishes His everlasting covenant, and the sign of this covenant He establishes in the clouds when He sets His bow in the expanse of the firmament, a silent but mighty witness of the holy gospel of promise!
But also through the patriarchs and prophets after the flood God continues to reveal the gospel of the promise in ever brighter rays of light. The attempt of the seed of the serpent to establish itself as all-powerful in the world is frustrated in the confusion of tongues at Babel And God calls Abraham from Ur of the Chaldees and out of Haran, in order that He might show him the land of promise, make a great nation out of him, and establish with him and with his generations for ever His everlasting covenant. And God proclaimed the gospel unto Abraham, saying: In thee shall nations be blessed. Gal. 3:8. And He showed him the realization of the promise, not only in Isaac, in whom his seed would be called, and who was the seed of the promise, but also in the land of Canaan, which He promised to him and to his seed for an everlasting possession. And although in all these things the patriarchs could only see the beginning of the promise, and though with Isaac and Jacob he lived in tents, and confessed that he was a stranger and sojourner in this world, yet he understood and received the promise, saw the fulfillment afar off, even saw the day of Christ, and died in faith.
Thus the light of the gospel continued to shine with ever increasing brightness and clarity in the thickening darkness of the world. Dark, indeed, was the night when the children of Israel, the heirs of the promise, were in bondage in the land of Egypt, groaning under the oppressive hand of a haughty world-power, and threatened with extinction. But Jehovah realizes the promise of the gospel afore preached to Abraham. With a mighty hand He delivers His people Israel from the house of bondage and leads them out to liberty. The seed of the serpent is crushed, indeed, when Pharaoh and his host are destroyed in the Red Sea, and the seed of the woman is given the complete victory. He realizes His promise unto them, receives them into His covenant, forms of them a people peculiar unto Himself, and leads them through the desert into the land of promise. Even in the desert He constantly reveals the gospel of the promise unto them by word and deed, through His mediator Moses, and by mighty signs and wonders. For He feeds them daily with the Bread from heaven, a promise of the true Bread from heaven that was to come; and He quenches their thirst by water that gushed from the rocks in the desert, and they drank from the spiritual rock that followed them, and that rock was Christ. And thus He performed His work of grace and salvation for them, constantly causing them to walk in the light of the gospel, and finally leading them into the “Rest” He had promised unto them, that there He might dwell among them, and He might be their God, and they might be His people!
It is true that at Sinai, and from that moment until the fulfillment of the promise in the fullness of time, the law was imposed upon the promise. Yet, it was never the purpose of the law to make the holy gospel of the promise of none effect. For the apostle writes: “Brethren, I speak after the manner of men; though it be but a man’s covenant, yet if it be confirmed, no man disannulleth or added thereto. Now to Abraham and his seed were the promises made. He saith not, And to his seeds, as of many; but as of one, And to thy seed, which is Christ. And this I say, that the covenant, that was confirmed before of God in Christ, the law, which was four hundred and thirty years after, cannot disannul, that it should make the promise of none effect. For if the inheritance be of the law, it is no more of promise: but God gave it to Abraham by promise. Wherefore then serveth the law? It was added because of transgressions, till the seed should come to whom the promise was made; and it was ordained by angels into the hand of a mediator. . . Wherefore the law was our schoolmaster (to bring us) unto Christ, that we might be justified by faith.”. In fact, although the law was superimposed, as it were, upon the promise, for a time, yet the law itself plainly revealed that it was never meant to replace the promise of the gospel, as if from Sinai on the way to the inheritance was that of the righteousness of the works of the law. The glory of the light of the gospel clearly shone through the law. In fact, the very law was a medium for the revelation of the gospel. For Christ is the end, the telos, of the law, and the finger of the law clearly pointed forward to Him. Beautifully this was witnessed in the face of Moses when, with the tables of the law in his hands, he came down from the mount. For the light of the glory of the holy gospel was reflected in his face. Without that light, there was, indeed, nothing but the law, and the mount that could be touched, and thunder and lightning and smoke and darkness; and there was the terrible sentence: “Cursed is every one that continueth not in all that is written in the law.” But the light that shone in the face of the mediator of the old dispensation was a reflection of “the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ,” . And it was typical of the attitude of all carnal Israel that “the children of Israel could not look stedfastly to the end of that which is abolished,” ; and that, therefore, they asked Moses to cover his face with a veil, thus extinguishing the light of the gospel in the law, and having nothing left but the righteousness which is through the law, and the resulting curse. For “their minds were blinded: for until this day remains the same veil untaken away in the reading of the Old Testament; which veil is done away In Christ. But even unto this day, when Moses is read, the veil is upon their heart.” .
Indeed, God proclaimed the gospel of the promise through the law. It is to this fact that the Heidelberg Catechism calls attention by stating that God also “represented (the holy gospel) by the sacrifices and other ceremonies of the law.” In two ways God revealed the holy gospel through the law. In the first place by making the ordinances of the law shadows and symbols of things to come.. The entire tabernacle, with its ark of the covenant, and the mercy seat; with its holy of holies, and holy place; Its altar of incense and altar of burnt offering; its candlestick and table of shewbread; was an “example and shadow of heavenly things, as Moses was admonished of God when he was about to make the tabernacle: for, See, saith he, that thou make all things according to the pattern shewed to thee in the mount.” . And in the entire service of the tabernacle, with its priests and sacrifices, its washings and shedding of blood, the gospel of the promise was clearly proclaimed to the heirs of the promise. And, in the second place, these ordinances of the law, these shadows and types and examples of heavenly things, plainly bore the testimony of their own unreality and imperfection, and thus pointed forward to the fulfillment of the holy gospel in Christ. “For the law made nothing perfect, but the bringing in of a better hope did.” . “And truly they were many priests, because they were not suffered to continue by reason of death.” . And “the law maketh men high priests which have infirmity,” and they needed daily “to offer up sacrifice, first for their own sins, and then for the people’s.” . And again: “when these things were thus ordained, the priests went always into the first tabernacle, accomplishing the service of God. But into the second went the high priest alone once every year, not without blood, which he offered for himself, and for the errors of the people. The Holy Ghost thus signifying, that the way into the holiest of all was not yet made manifest, while as the first tabernacle was yet standing. Which was a figure for the time then present, in which were offered both gifts and sacrifices, that could not make him that did the service perfect, as pertaining to the conscience.” . “For the law having a shadow of good things to come, and not the very image of the things, can never with those sacrifices which they offered year by year continually make the comers thereunto perfect. For then would they not have ceased to be offered? because that the worshippers once purged should have had no more conscience of sins. But in those sacrifices there is a remembrance again made of sins every year. For it is not possible that the blood of bulls and of goats should take away sins.” . On the one hand, therefore, there was a rather clear shadow of things to come in the ordinances of the law; on the other hand, these ordinances clearly testified by their very imperfection that they were not the things themselves; and thus they pointed to Christ as the end of the law and proclaimed the holy gospel to the heirs of the promise of the old dispensation.
“And lastly, has fulfilled it by his only begotten Son.” It is remarkable that, as the time of fulfillment approaches, the shadows gradually grow dimmer, but at the same time, the direct word of prophecy, the holy gospel as proclaimed through the prophets, becomes more distinct. The tree of David is cut down: nothing remains of it but a root in a dry ground. The scepter is, outwardly at least, departed from Judah. The glory of Mount Sion is extinguished. The temple is demolished. And although it is rebuilt after the captivity, the ark of the covenant never returns: a stone must take its place in the holy of holies. At the time of that cruel type of Antichrist, Antiochus Epiphanes, the holy place is defiled, and the people “are killed all the day long.” But as the light of the gospel in the law grows dim, the direct proclamation of the gospel through the prophets becomes clearer, more definite, fuller and richer. And in the fullness of time, the holy gospel is fulfilled in God’s only begotten Son, Jesus Christ, our Lord. It is fulfilled in the incarnation, the cross and resurrection of the Son of God, His ascension and exaltation at the right hand of God, and the outpouring of His Spirit upon all flesh. And while the gospel is being fulfilled, it is also revealed and proclaimed more fully and clearly than ever before. For not only is Christ, as the fulfillment of the holy gospel, Himself the revelation of the promise in all its riches, but He also preached the gospel during the years of His public ministry, as it never had been proclaimed before. For “God who at sundry times and in divers manners spake in time past unto the fathers by the prophets, hath in these last days spoken unto us by His Son.”. And having ascended into glory, and having received and poured, out the promise of the Holy Ghost, He still revealed the riches of the holy gospel and proclaimed them through the apostles. And He guided them through that same Spirit even in committing the fullness of the holy gospel to writing, so that the Church of the new dispensation may possess the infallible record of the revelation of the gospel in the holy gospel. But still, it is always He, the only begotten Son, come in the flesh, crucified, dead, and buried, raised on the third day, exalted into highest glory, Who not only is the fulfillment of the holy gospel, but Who also reveals it, and proclaims it by His Spirit and Word, gathering His Church, and causing men to know everywhere that the Mediator, Who in one person is both very God, and real righteous man, is our Lord Jesus Christ, who of God is made unto us wisdom, and righteousness, and sanctification, and redemption.