Doth not God then do injustice to man, by requiring from him in His law, that which he cannot perform? This is the first attempt on the part of fallen man to discover a way out of his misery without changing his sinful way and rebellious attitude against the living God. It really represents an attack on God Himself. Man wants to rid himself of the obligation to serve his Creator. He registers a complaint against his divine Employer in order to justify himself in his sin. He tries to justify a strike. His Employer is unjust. The requirements imposed upon him by the Almighty are too severe. The demands of God are far too exacting; they far exceed his capacity; he can never fulfill them. And so he refuses to shoulder his obligation. No one, not even God, has the right to demand of him what he perform!
Let us notice, first of all, the hopelessness of this attempt to escape God. Suppose for a moment that the question that is here asked must be answered in the affirmative, and that God does indeed do an injustice to man, by requiring of him what he can never perform; would that change the actual situation at all? Is it, indeed, possible for man, even then, to escape the living God? Can man refuse to work in God’s world, and that, too, with God’s power and means and tools and capital? Can he quit work or organize a strike? Is he at liberty or in a position to leave God’s “factory” and offer his services to someone else? Among men this is, of course, quite possible and proper. If an employer is too exacting and his demands upon his employees are too severe, or if he does not pay a just wage and working conditions are bad, his employees have the right to quit their jobs and seek employment elsewhere. But with man in relation to God this is quite different. That he is the servant of the living God is not the result of a voluntary contract he made with his Creator. There were no mutual conditions and stipulations, agreements and demands before man entered into the service of the Most High. On the contrary, his employer is GOD! He is the Lord of heaven and earth, the Creator of all. By an act of His omnipotent will alone man was called into being, endowed with his faculties, powers and talents, placed in God’s world and in God’s service. In all this there was nothing of man. By God’s sovereign will alone he was the servant of God. And a privilege and blessing it was that he might thus serve the living God. However, man did not regard his great distinction. He presumed to rise in rebellion against his Lord. Does this mean that he is actually able to quit work? Can he leave God’s “workshop?” Can he cease to be a servant? Of course not. Work he must with all his mind and soul and strength. And work he must with God’s gifts, with God’s capital, in God’s world and with God’s tools. Even though because of his rebellion he works in the sphere of death, and though by working he can never do anything else than heap up for himself treasures of wrath in the day of the revelation of the righteous judgment of God, he is, nevertheless, constrained to work Even though, therefore, this question must be answered in the affirmative, it would not open a way one for man. If God does an injustice to man, the situation does not alter: man is servant by God’s sovereign will, and never can he escape from his service.
But does God do an injustice to man? The Catechism speaks of a demand of God which man cannot fulfill. It is important that we bear this in mind. For, what is this demand of God which man cannot perform? The reference here is certainly not to what has sometimes been called the “general mandate,” or the “cultural” calling of man. When God had created man the Creator enjoined him to “be fruitful,” and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.” If this were the demand to which the Catechism refers it could hardly be said that man cannot perform it. For, even though all creation is subject to the bondage of corruption, and all things are vanity, and though man works in the sphere of death and is limited by death on every side, yet, even so, he exerts himself to subdue the earth, and to realize his kingship over the earth. And as we have seen, in this he succeeds to a certain extent. If God could be pleased with modern inventions, with the products of modern science and industry and art, with the mighty works of man regardless of their spiritual-ethical content, He might well look with favor upon the accomplishments of the modern world. And Dr. Kuyper’s theory might then appear to be correct, that fallen man is still God’s co-worker and in developing the powers of creation stands in a covenant-relation of “common grace” to God, is God’s ally against the devil. But this is not the case. All these mighty works of man cannot meet with the favor of God as long as man stands in rebellion against Him. For the demand of the law of God is that man love Him with all his heart and mind and soul and strength. And this demand of the law is not to be divorced from the so-called “cultural” mandate, but, on the contrary, dominates it. And it is to this demand of the law that the Catechism refers in this ninth question. This demand man cannot perform. For, as we have learned through our instructor before: man is prone by nature to hate God and the neighbor!
There would seem to be reason for the question: does not God do an injustice to man? For God demands what man cannot perform. God demands that man love Him; and man is by nature prone to hate Him. If it were merely a matter of man’s will whether or not he would love God, the situation would be far different, and the question concerning the injustice of God’s demand would have no point. But man cannot love God. True, he will not love Him, but the fact remains that this will is subjectively determined by man’s nature, that his nature is such that he is prone to hate God, and that, therefore, he cannot even will to love God. Nor was the nature of the individual man ever different. He is born with a nature that is wholly contrary to the law of God. Never was he capable of loving God and thus fulfilling the demand of the law of God. Is, then, the demand not unjust? Justice is equity. In this particular case justice would seem to require perfect equality between the must and the can, between the demand and the ability to perform it. But the two are wholly unequal. Man is by nature wholly incapable of performing what God demands of him. It would seem, then, that there is reason for the question: does not God do an injustice to man?
But are we, is mere man able to answer this question? Does he have the right to propose this problem, and will he be able to find a solution? (It is well for us to consider this question before we proceed. And the answer to this question will certainly have to be negative, if to inquire after the justice or injustice of an act of God would imply that we summon God before the bar of human justice, and that we propose to judge the Most High. For this would mean that we claim to have a criterion or standard of our own which we apply to God, and according to which we express our verdict. But where shall we find such a criterion except with God Himself? Shall we derive our standard of justice from our own intelligence, from our sense of justice, from our conscience, or, perhaps, from the consensus of human opinion as to what is right or wrong? But this is quite impossible. For God is God, and He is the sole Lord of heaven and earth. He is the sole Lawgiver and the sole Judge. There is no law above God; there is no criterion whereby He can be judged; there is no tribunal to which one can appeal from His verdict. God is the Absolute. He is His own law. And we are creatures, that are in every respect dependent upon the Creator, even for any knowledge of truth and righteousness, for any criterion of justice we might desire to apply. Besides, we are sinful creatures, whose mind is darkened, whose will is perverse, whose verdict about God is bound to be corrupt. It is evident, then, that the attempt to find an answer to the question, whether God does an injustice to man, must be abandoned, if the question implies that Man will judge his God, that the creature will call the Creator before his bar of judgment. Nay, the very question, if thus understood, must be considered highly presumptuous.
We cannot, therefore, call upon man, upon his intelligence, his sense of justice, his conscience, or upon the common opinion of men, to answer this question. There is only one sense in which the question is justified: if it is directed to God. And there is only one possible way of finding a solution: if we will let God Himself answer this question. In other words, we must proceed from the fundamental axiom: God is just, and He is the sole criterion of all justice. All His works are justice and truth. The question, therefore, can never be whether God Himself is just, nor whether His works are righteousness; but whether in a given case we can understand the justice of God. And this understanding of the work of God as just in a concrete case must be determined by God’s own revelation. That this is the correct method of procedure is evident from Scripture. It is applied in Rom. 9:14-18. There the same question is asked: “What shall we say then? Is there unrighteousness with God?” And this question is answered, first of all, by the familiar and emphatic denial: “God forbid!” The idea of this denial is: “Let the very thought be far from our minds; let it be established a priori that God is just!” Yet, the apostle proceeds to answer it, to demonstrate that in the given case under discussion, that of sovereign election and reprobation, the justice of God cannot be doubted. And he does this by allowing the Word of God to supply the evidence: “For he saith to Moses, I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion. So then it is not of him that willeth, nor of him that runneth, but of God that sheweth mercy. For the Scripture saith unto Pharaoh, For this same purpose have I raised thee up, that I might shew my power in thee, and that my name might be declared throughout all the earth. Therefore hath he mercy on whom he will have mercy, and whom he will he hardeneth.” We quote this passage, let us bear in mind, only to show that the answer to the question, whether in a given case the work of God is just, must be derived from the Scriptures themselves. And if mere man is not satisfied with this answer from the Word of God, but still raises objections that arise from his own rebellious mind, the apostle answers: “Nay but, O man, who art thou that repliest against God? Shall the thing formed say unto him that formed it, why hast thou made me thus?” Rom. 9:20.
Now, in application to the case in hand, the Heidelberg Catechism fundamentally follows the same method. The case is this: 1. Man is totally depraved. As far as the individual man is concerned, he never was different. He cannot perform the demand of the law. 2. However, God continues to demand of man that he keep his law. 3. Is this demand of God not an unjust one? Does not God in this case do an injustice to man? And the answer of the Catechism is: “Not at all; for God made man capable of performing it; but man, by the instigation of the devil, and his own willful disobedience, deprived himself and all his posterity of those divine gifts.”
The whole answer is derived from, and based upon, Scripture. God made man capable of performing the demand of the law. The implication of this was discussed in a previous chapter. Man was made good and after God’s own image. The “divine gifts” of which the Catechism speaks in this connection are those of true knowledge of God, righteousness, and holiness. Endowed with these gifts, man certainly was able to perform the demand of the law, that is, to love the Lord his God with all his heart, and with all his mind, and with all his soul, and with all his strength. But man was very willfully disobedient, as we have seen. God’s commandment was not grievous. In the midst of the abundance of Paradise he was to refrain from eating of just one tree. And he wantonly violated God’s covenant. Upon the instigation of the devil, believing his lie rather than the Word of God, he ate of the forbidden fruit. And the result of this disobedience was that he sank into the darkness of spiritual death, so that he lost all his excellent gifts. And, of course, without these gifts he can no longer keep the law of God. These gifts were changed into their very opposite. His knowledge became darkness, the darkness of the lie; his righteousness became perverseness of heart and will; his holiness became corruption and impurity in all his desires and inclinations. The result is that he now stands by nature in enmity against God. He cannot, in his natural state, perform what God demands of him in His holy law.
Now, it is evident, that the emphasis in this entire answer falls upon the word man. Man was endowed with those divine gifts that were necessary to keep the law; man was willfully disobedient; man squandered those excellent gifts with which he was originally endowed; man is still holden by the demand of God to love Him with all his heart and mind and soul and strength. And by man the Catechism means the whole race of Adam. All men are reckoned in Adam, and are organically in him. If this is not true, the whole argument falls. The point is, that we, that you and I, that each individual man, that all are personally responsible for the squandering of these divine gifts. We were all originally endowed with these gifts. We all were disobedient; we all deprived ourselves of these gifts. And, therefore, God does not do us an injustice when He still demands that we shall perform His law. The truth of this juridical solidarity and organic unity of the whole race in Adam we discussed before. The point we wish to make now, is that the Catechism turns to Scripture for its answer to the question: Does not God do an injustice to man by demanding of him in his law what he cannot perform? And in the light of this Scriptural truth of the responsibility of the whole race and of every individual man for the sin of Adam, it is very plain that there is no injustice at all in this demand of God. Suppose that a contractor agrees to build a home for some party at the cost of ten thousand dollars. Suppose, further, that the contractor is a person without means, so that he is not even able to purchase the necessary material to build the house. But the party for whom the house is to be built advances the entire sum of ten thousand dollars to the poor contractor. If now that contractor, instead of using the money that was advanced to him for the building of the home, squanders it in drunkenness and riotous living, so that he is incapable of fulfilling the terms of the contract, does the party for whom the house is to be built do the contractor an injustice if he still demands of him that he build that home him? Of course not. He was supplied with the necessary means. He is obliged to comply with the terms of the contract.
This illustration may serve to bring out the point of the answer of our Catechism. God gave man the means to perform the law; man squandered the gifts of God; the demand of the law is still just, though man is now incapable of performing it: love the Lord thy God with all thy heart and mind and soul and strength!
Sinful man may not be satisfied with this answer of Scripture, but that does not alter the matter. He may insist that he will not be responsible for the sin of Adam, that he personally, therefore, never was capable of performing the demand of the law, and that God certainly does an injustice to him if He still demands that he fulfill the law. Or he may grow presumptuous and say, that God had no business to create him in Adam. To all this, however, the Word of God replies: “Nay but, O man, who art thou that repliest against God? Shall the thing formed say unto him that formed it, Why hast thou made me thus?” And in the day of the revelation of the righteous judgment of God, God will certainly justify Himself in all His works before the consciousness of all His moral creatures. And no one shall ever again presume to open his mouth against the Lord of heaven and earth! The perfect theodicy will forever silence the rebellious speech of the proud, and cause the righteous to rejoice and to worship Him that sitteth upon the throne!
The second attempt on the part of fallen man to maintain himself in his sinful state and feel safe is expressed in the question: Will God suffer such disobedience and rebellion to go unpunished? This question has been answered affirmatively in various degrees. Some deny altogether that God punishes sin. Others insist that he does not inflict just punishment in time. Still others deny that there is an eternal punishment in hell. While there are also those who are of the opinion that hell is right here in this world, and that all the punishment man will ever suffer he receives in time. However, the Catechism answers: 1. That God is terribly displeased, filled with wrath, both with our original and our actual sins. 2. That this wrath realizes itself in the curse against every one that continueth not in all things that are written in the book of the law to do them. 3. That God, therefore, surely punishes sin in His just judgment, and that, too, in time as well as in eternity.
Let us note here, first of all, that as far as God’s attitude over against the rebellious sinners is concerned, the Catechism leaves no room for a distinction between time and eternity. God punishes sin in time as well as in eternity and that, too, in His just judgment. This statement is directly opposed to the theory of common grace on this point? to the first of the famous “Three Points” adopted by the Christian Reformed Church in 1924, as well as to a very general popular notion. God, according to this conception, changes His attitude to the wicked after the latter’s death. In time He assumes an attitude of favor arid grace to the sinner, and He blesses him with many things; but after death He makes him the object of His fierce wrath. God, therefore, does not apply the sentence of His just judgment in time.