Previous article in this series: January 15, 2010, p. 180.
Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day 5
Question 12. Since then, by the righteous judgment of God, we deserve temporal and eternal punishment, is there no way by which we may escape that punishment, and be again received into favor?
Answer. God will have His justice satisfied: and therefore we must make this full satisfaction, either by ourselves, or by another.
Question 13. Can we ourselves then make this satisfaction?
Answer. By no means; but on the contrary we daily increase our debt.
Question 14. Can there be found anywhere one who is a mere creature, able to satisfy for us?
Answer. None; for, first, God will not punish any other creature for the sin which man hath committed; and further, no mere creature can sustain the burden of God’s eternal wrath against sin, so as to deliver others from it.
Question 15. What sort of a mediator and deliverer then must we seek for?
Answer. For one who is very man, and perfectly righteous; and yet more powerful than all creatures; that is, one who is also very God.
How thankful we can be that the Bible does not end with the message of man’s sin and condemnation and that the Catechism goes on from man’s misery to the way of deliverance.
We now begin the second main section of the Heidelberg Catechism, which teaches us the gospel—the good news—of salvation for sinners. But the Catechism moves very slowly, and we are not introduced to the Savior until partway through the sixth Lord’s Day. Instead, the catechism becomes very pedagogical, leading us to Christ very logically and carefully. There is no “easy-believism” or a simple “sinner’s prayer.” Instead, the Catechism reaffirms our depravity, shows the impossibility of salvation through man’s effort, and presents us with the gospel of sovereign grace. God plans salvation, God provides the Savior, and God sovereignly brings sinners to Himself. Salvation is of the Lord!
Have you been reconciled to God?
One important way to think of salvation is “reconciliation.” Paul uses this word to sum up the whole gospel. He says that God has “given to us the ministry of reconciliation” (II Cor. 5:18-19). To reconcile is to reunite those who are estranged from one another, by removing the barrier to their relationship. Reconciliation changes their position from hostility to friendship.
How sweet is reconciliation! When an estranged man and his wife are reunited, when brothers who have been fighting for years make peace, when a wayward child returns—these are times of joyous reconciliation.
Usually in this kind of reconciliation, both sides have to do something in order to make it possible for them to come back together. Both of them must want it; both must make apologies and changes in behavior; both must be forgiving and receptive. Reconciliation with God works differently than this.
For one, God does not need to be reconciled to us. No, He has done no offense, He does not need to make adjustments or apologies. The enmity that exists between God and man is man’s fault. Isaiah 59:2 says, “Your iniquities have separated between you and your God, and your sins have hid his face from you that he will not hear.” We humans are the ones who have to be reconciled. Our sin, in Adam and Eve, has estranged us from God. And, as the Canons of Dordt teach, “God would have done no injustice by leaving them all to perish and delivering them over to condemnation on account of sin” (Head 1, Art. 1).
Then further, man can do nothing to change his estranged relationship to God. If there is conflict in a marriage, in a family, or in the church, either party involved can initiate the reconciliation and make moves to repair the rift. But with God, that cannot be done, and in fact we by nature do not want that. We cannot say that we are sorry; we cannot mend anything. From our point of view, reconciliation is impossible. So, reconciliation is from God’s side. God takes us who were originally made to know and love Him, who now have fallen from that relationship, and He brings us back to Himself in Jesus Christ.
God Is Just
This reconciliation is real. It is not just a patch-up job, which shoves differences under the rug and moves on.
By nature we all prefer to think of God only in terms of mercy and love. We would like Him to be the kind of God who lets our sin go, without insisting on His own justice. And, in fact, this is how many people think of God today. How wrong, and how different to the God of the Bible, who says in Exodus 23:7, “I will not justify the wicked” and of whom the Scriptures say, “God is light, and in him is no darkness at all” (I John 1:5). God cannot let go of the tiniest speck of sin. If He did, that would pollute His purity. Every sin, even the smallest, will be remitted only by payment and punishment.
Two things in the Bible make this truth of God’s justice very clear.
First, the Bible teaches the reality of hell. Our sins deserve not only temporal punishment, but eternal punishment in hell. The doctrine of hell is not pleasant, but probably the greatest teacher of hell in all the Bible was Jesus Himself. In Matthew 25:41 He prophesies that, on the judgment day, He, Himself, as judge will say to some men, “Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels.”
The second proof is that God punished the sins of man in His own beloved Son, Jesus Christ. Even though Jesus Himself was free of sin, He still had to die in order to redeem His people. If it had been possible any other way, then God would certainly have spared His Son the suffering of the cross. But, the Bible says, God “spared not his own son” but gave Him up for sin (Rom. 8:32). God is just, and so He punished the sins of His people in the death of His own Son. If the sins of believers demand satisfaction, then it is impossible that the ungodly will escape hell.
Because God is just, there must be satisfaction for sin. This too is a very important gospel concept. When someone is satisfied, he says, “It is enough.” After dessert, with a full stomach at the end of a meal, I say, “I am satisfied.”
God says, “It is enough,” and “I am satisfied,” only when every last sin has been paid for. Sin incurs a debt with God. Jesus teaches us to think of our sin this way when He teaches us to pray, “And forgive us our debts” (Matt. 6:12).
What is the debt? “The wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23). Death is not merely the soul’s leaving the body, but it is the soul’s going to hell to suffer, and the body later joining the soul in hell. This is what our sin deserves. This is the only way the debt of sin can be paid.
This debt of sin is not small, but is an infinite debt, a debt that cannot be calculated. That’s why the suffering of hell is eternal—it goes on into time infinite. You cannot calculate the debt of your sin. Every sin you commit, even the smallest sinful thought, makes you worthy of death, an eternity in hell. And how many sins aren’t there in your life, even in one day? Are there ten sins in a day, fifty, hundreds, thousands? Then add these up over a lifetime and there are millions. And each one warrants an eternity of suffering in hell, so the debt is infinite.
And, the Catechism tells us, “God will have His justice satisfied, and therefore we must make this full satisfaction either by ourselves or by another.”
As far as we are concerned, there are really only two options for satisfaction. Either we make this payment ourselves, or someone else will have to do it for us.
If anything is clear from the Bible, it is this, from Genesis to Revelation, there is absolutely no way we can satisfy God’s justice ourselves. This debt is not like a multi-million dollar debt that an individual might have, to which he makes payments each month, which seem hardly to make a dent. It is not like the multi-trillion dollar debt of a country, which can get chipped away at when economic prosperity returns. No, this is an infinite debt, which means that even if massive payments were made, daily, for the whole of one’s life, the debt would not even begin to be paid. It is impossible for a finite creature to pay an infinite debt.
Besides, it is impossible for our works to pay anything. For one, God requires perfection, and our deeds are always sinful. Even our best are fraught with sin. Also, even if all our works were perfect, or if they were perfect from here on out, they would not merit anything with God.
Works of a creature can never merit with God, because the creature owes his best to God regardless.
Instead of paying off our debt, we add to it every day with our sins and need further forgiveness. Even the sinner in hell is not decreasing his debt, but continues in the irreversible state of hatred toward God, thus making his debt greater and greater. How impossible is a doctrine of salvation by “good works.” Those who trust their own works to get them to heaven are going to find out that, because nothing they have done merits with God, and because they did not trust in Christ, they themselves will have to suffer for their sins in hell.
So, we have to find someone or something else to pay the debt for us. Almost all religions teach that a person can bring something to his god to appease him, a gift or a sacrifice. Even Roman Catholics teach this. But on this point biblical Christianity is different.
There is no way for any creature to take and pay our sin before God. A cow or lamb sacrifice cannot do it, because animals are not equivalent to man before God. The same holds true for angels. Another fallen man cannot do it, because he has his own sins to be concerned with before God. If there was a sinless man, it would not be possible for him to do it because the burden of wrath is infinite, and a creature would be crushed under it before the debt was paid.
The Only Way
It is very clear, then, that our case is hopeless. From our point of view, reconciliation and satisfaction are impossible. The only way is that God devise a way that includes Himself, and the perfection and power of His own being, and that somehow God combine this to the human nature that must be punished. And so the kind of mediator we need is one who is Himself God almighty, able to bear the weight of our sin, one who is perfectly righteous, so that He need not pay for His own sins, and one who is a true man to take the wrath of God against man.
With this biblical and doctrinal logic, the Catechism is ready to introduce us to Christ, of whom the Scriptures say, “Wherefore in all things it behooved him to be made like unto his brethren” (Heb. 2:17). In question fifteen, though not mentioned by name, He is mentioned as “mediator” and “redeemer.” A mediator is one who stands between two who are at odds and need to be reconciled. Christ, who comes from God, is our mediator, not to bring God down to us, but to bring us up to God, through taking on Himself our sin.
A redeemer is one who pays the price to purchase and set free those who are under bondage and in debt. Our bondage is sin and our debt is hell. Christ pays the price in the cross to set us free from the guilt and power of sin.
This is the gospel of reconciliation. Isn’t it a glorious gospel? Paul thinks it is, and so he wants to preach it. God, he says, has “given to us the ministry of reconciliation” (II Cor. 5:18). What good news when friends and family members are reconciled; you would tell everyone! What greater good news that God and sinners are reconciled.
So, Paul says, “Be ye reconciled to God!” (II Cor. 5:20). What does he mean? He means, “Believe on Jesus, God’s provided Mediator!” There is no other way.
Questions for Discussion
1. Why, when it comes to the second section of the Catechism on deliverance, does the Catechism take so long to get to Jesus?
2. What is reconciliation? What makes it such a rich concept?
3. What makes the reconciliation of sinners with God different from reconciliation between two human parties?
4. How would you answer someone who says that God, in His love, is simply willing to overlook and dismiss sin?
5. In Scripture, who speaks more than any other about eternal damnation?
6. Is it fair for God to punish someone in hell for a sin as small as gossip or slander? Isn’t hell reserved for murderers
and others guilty of the worse sorts of sin?
7. Why cannot angels or animals take our place before God?
8. Why cannot another man than Jesus die for our sins?
9. Why must our Mediator be true God?